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Chateau in the Sky

The coming-out party for the palatial penthouse restaurant of the Hotel Pierre was a chilly one. On a blustery February afternoon in 1930, a genteel hotel impresario named Charles Pierre Casalasco led a hardy troupe of debutantes wearing cloche hats and fur stoles up flight after flight of stairs to the roof of the unfinished 42-story building.

Perched on high heels with only a few wooden planks standing between them and a plunge to Fifth Avenue, the debutantes blinked into a stiff wind as one of them helped drive the last rivet, a gold one, into the steel framework.

By October of that year, the Pierre's top two floors, including the exposed wooden platform on which the debs braved the elements, would be transformed into a glamorous breakfast room and night club, "decorated to resemble the interior of a zeppelin cabin," according to The New York Sun. Not long after that, the hotel would begin to operate the space as a ballroom.

A place of Champagne bubbles and swing bands, the Pierre Roof, as it became known, was the exclusive province of high society in Depression-era New York. Though its interior was off-limits to most of the city, however, its ornate exterior became a signature feature of the Fifth Avenue skyline. Set atop a slender tower of cream-colored brick, the Pierre's upper floors had the rarefied aspect of a French chateau in the sky, complete with a gleaming copper mansard roof 500 feet above 61st Street.

The New Yorker hailed the new hotel as a "millionaires' Elysium," and the description still applies. The space once occupied by that rooftop restaurant is now a private penthouse triplex on the market for a cool $70 million, which brokers say is the highest price ever listed for a New York residence.

Chateau in the Sky

The primary selling point is the 3,500-square-foot grand salon, the former ballroom of the Pierre Roof. Occupying most of the 42nd floor, the room is bordered by 20-foot-high Palladian windows and topped by a curved 23-foot ceiling. On each of the room's two west-facing corners, soaring French doors open onto terraces offering breathtaking views of Central Park and beyond. The master bedroom suite has two additional corner terraces.

The financial guru Martin Zweig, author of "Winning on Wall Street," bought the apartment in 1999 for $21.5 million, then a record. He is now trying to sell it because he and his wife, Barbara, live in Miami and spend only a month or two a year in New York. If the triplex sells for anything close to its asking price this time, it will again smash the record for the biggest single residential deal in city history, topping the Harkness mansion on East 75th Street, which was sold in October for $53 million.

Though the Pierre penthouse's staggering price tag has attracted news media attention from around the world, its lavish interior has been seen only rarely over the last three decades.

"It is kind of a mysterious venue because it hasn't been a public part of the hotel for so long," said William Weathersby Jr., an editor of Architectural Record who is writing a book on the Pierre's history. "In my research, I read about 1930s orchestra events and society galas happening up there, but that's so long ago."

The ballroom was shuttered in the early 1970s and largely forgotten for nearly 20 years until it was sold as a private residence. Few of its stories have been told, and little has been revealed about its present incarnation as a luxury pied-à-terre decorated with iconic popular-culture artifacts, like the crystal-studded dress Marilyn Monroe wore while singing "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

The dress does not come with the apartment. But the grand salon's oversize measurements have their own va-va-voom allure for prospective buyers.

"When they walk into the ballroom, their mouths just fall wide open," said Elizabeth Lee Sample, the Brown Harris Stevens broker who, with her colleague Brenda Powers, holds the exclusive listing for the triplex.

The wallet of the eventual buyer will also have to fall wide open. The Pierre cooperative requires that apartments be bought entirely in cash. By comparison with the asking price, the annual maintenance fee of $464,600 seems almost modest, particularly since the services of a uniformed housekeeper and houseman are included.

Two would-be buyers have made $70 million offers since the 16-room, 5-fireplace triplex went on the market in October 2004, Ms. Sample said. "But it doesn't mean anything," she added, "until we get them through the board."

When the Pierre opened in October 1930, the hotel's 41st and 42nd floors became home to the Club Pierrot, an exclusive supper club led by business and society figures including William Vanderbilt, Walter Chrysler and Condé Nast. Several hundred members and guests, counts and countesses among them, attended the opening gala. But in the depths of the Depression, the club could not attract enough members to sustain itself. The Pierrot disbanded within three months.

Even so, the Pierre Roof, sometimes called the roof garden, went on to a vibrant life as a popular summer ballroom. Each year, a succession of debutante receptions were held in the spacious aerie. Their guest lists were sprinkled with names like Astor, Auchincloss, Villard and Gerry, the prominent family whose mansion previously occupied the site on which the Pierre was built.

Society pages of the city's newspapers spilled forth with these guest lists. Occasionally, the papers provided florid descriptions of debutante parties like the 1932 dinner dance for one Gertrude Low, who "wore a white peau d'ange gown, trimmed with kolinsky fur on the shoulders, and carried a muff made of gardenias." In 1935, members of the Barnard College junior class held their annual promenade in the rooftop ballroom, dancing with their escorts until 3 a.m.

In the years before air-conditioning, roof gardens provided a popular escape from the summer heat, and the Pierre was not shy about advertising itself as having "the highest and coolest hotel roof in Manhattan." To better compete with rivals like the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf-Astoria, management redecorated the Pierre's rooftop ballroom in 1936 to give it the appearance of a trellis-enclosed garden adorned with privet hedges. Kitty Carlisle Hart, the Broadway and Hollywood singer who performed in films with Bing Crosby in the 1930s, remembers the ballroom in those days.

"We used to go up there and dress up and be gorgeous," recalled Ms. Hart, 96, sounding truly transported by the memory. "And we used to have wonderful parties up there. It was pale beige, and it had windows looking out on the park, and it was a place that you dressed up and went to looking forward to an evening of dancing, and a little drinking, and happiness."

Entertainment was provided by the likes of Shep Fields and his Rippling Rhythm Orchestra, whose name derived from the distinctive sound the bandleader created by blowing through glass straws into a bowl of water in tune with his orchestra's music.

"I went with George Gershwin," Ms. Hart remembered, "and we danced up a storm."

Twiggy and 'Deco-Kitsch'

The music played on through the Depression and World War II. But in 1959, the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, who had bought the Pierre in 1938, turned the hotel into a cooperative, with the permanent residents assuming ownership and the remaining guest rooms and public spaces continuing as a hotel.

While the ballroom remained in use into the early 1970s for events like appearances by Walter Cronkite and Twiggy (not together), it was ultimately closed. The precise reason is unclear, but the conventional wisdom among veterans of the hotel's management is that co-op owners grew weary of sharing their elevators with roofgoing crowds. The hotel's second-floor ballroom also made the penthouse venue somewhat redundant.

Left to languish, the ballroom became lost to time, gathering a thick layer of dust and becoming a sort of grand attic for the hotel. When the Pierre was renovated in the 1980s, the hotel's gilded mirrors and Louis XV sofas were hauled to the penthouse in bulk, giving the ballroom the surreal appearance of the backstage of an opera house where the sets had been dismantled and left to molder for decades.

Over time, the Pierre ballroom became so forgotten that even some celebrities who lived in the building knew nothing of its existence.

In the late 1980s, Scott Durkin, then the hotel's guest relations manager, took Claire Trevor, the actress who won an Oscar for her performance in the 1948 film "Key Largo," to the penthouse ballroom for the first time. When the elevator door opened on 41, they stepped into the original lounge area of the Pierre Roof and walked up the Belgian-marble double staircase along the Fifth Avenue wall, which was adorned, Mr. Durkin recalled, by a pair of "Deco-kitschy" fountains. Everything was covered with dust and cobwebs.

When they reached the cavernous ballroom, with its large mirrors etched with palm trees and the defunct band shell on the far east wall, Ms. Trevor had a flashback of sorts.

As Mr. Durkin remembers it: "Her first words were: 'Oh, my God, I feel like I've been transported back to the '30s, and they just walked out of here one night after a party and no one returned.' "

Finally, in 1988, the Pierre's 41st and 42nd floors were sold for $12 million to Lady Mary Fairfax, an Australian newspaper heiress. She immediately set about trying to make a splash in New York society by transforming the Pierre Roof into a palatial private residence.

"She had been a grand hostess in Australia, and she wanted to be a grand hostess here," said A. Laurance Kaiser IV, president of the real estate brokerage firm Key-Ventures, who visited the penthouse both before and after construction. "The ballroom was just this giant warehouse in the sky, and then it was turned into a palace in the sky." The architectural group entrusted with the transformation was Balamotis McAlpine Associates.

"It was all about creating style, about creating a grand entrance for her guests," said Dimitri Balamotis, who worked closely with Lady Fairfax. "But at the same time, she wanted cozy spaces for her."

When Mr. Balamotis first saw the 42nd floor, most of it was given over to the ballroom. On its eastern end, a raised stage with a curved ceiling created a band shell. The space below the stage was a service pantry.

Mr. Balamotis placed Lady Fairfax's master bedroom in the area that had been the pantry, enlarging the boudoir by taking 11 feet from the ballroom. To give the bedroom more height, its ceiling was raised, and above the ceiling he created two 43rd-story bedrooms and a pair of bathrooms.

One of these guest bedrooms, called the Scottish Room, was decorated with a green tartan plaid and a set of bagpipes. The other, the Arabian Nights Room, was tricked out with Middle Eastern murals.

With the band shell removed, Mr. Balamotis outfitted the Grand Salon's new eastern wall with an 18-foot-high limestone fireplace and mantle, originally from a French chateau, that he and Lady Fairfax had found in an architectural salvage shop near Paris. A 10-foot-long crystal chandelier was hung at the center of the double-height 75-foot-by-46-foot room.

Don't Step on the Lambskin Rug

With real estate voyeurism a nearly universal hobby in the city, Lady Fairfax had no shortage of takers in 1993 when she opened the doors of her newly completed apartment for charity. At least 300 people paid $185 each to benefit children with AIDS and to gawk at the 13,660-square-foot penthouse triplex, not to mention the Chagalls and the Rodin nude.

The only hitch, The New York Times reported, came when Lady Fairfax led King Michael and Queen Anne of Romania into her bedroom, shutting the door so they could rest. Right behind them, and unrecognized by the hostess, was the widow of the Shah of Iran, Empress Farah, who knocked on the door.

"Go away," Lady Fairfax was heard to say, to which Empress Farah rejoined, "I am the Shabanou of Iran!"

"Oh, my dear, forgive me!" Lady Fairfax said, after opening the door to the room, whose floor was adorned with white lambskin rugs. "I did not recognize you. Now please take your shoes off."

When Mr. Zweig bought the triplex from Lady Fairfax six years later, he and his wife imposed a decidedly different aesthetic. Taking advantage of the apartment's vast acreage, they created what amounts to a combination pied-à-terre and museum of popular culture.

When visitors step off the elevator on the 41st story nowadays, they still cross a gallery tiled with the four dragons of the Fairfax family crest. But in place of the Rodin sculpture Lady Fairfax had stationed there, four headless mannequins now stand sentry, dressed in matching gray collarless uniforms worn by the Beatles in 1963.

Turning left to face Fifth Avenue, guests come to the original Belgian-marble double staircase, beside which is parked an American-flag-emblazoned chrome motorcycle. According to Mr. Zweig, the bike was used to promote the 1969 film "Easy Rider" and was once owned by Dennis Hopper.

The area where the opulent Pierre Roof ladies' room was once located is now known as the Beatles Room. The walls shimmer with upwards of 20 Beatles gold records, and on a platform stands a true rock 'n' roll treasure, one of their drum kits. It was used when the band was so young that the Beatles name was not printed on the bass drum but written on a piece of paper and affixed there.

Upstairs, display cases line the walls of the erstwhile ballroom, housing one-of-a-kind artifacts of 20th-century Americana. Beside a sheer Marilyn Monroe bustier is a silver cigarette case, engraved with the words "Joe, From Marilyn," that the actress bought for Joe DiMaggio during the couple's honeymoon. A Jackie Robinson jersey hangs near a pair of 1932 Yankees trousers whose generous dimensions (as well as the name stitched on the waistband) identify them as Babe Ruth's. When the penthouse is sold, the collection will probably be moved to the Zweigs' primary residence in Miami.

Still, the penthouse's richest treasure may well be its spectacular 360-degree views of the city. When the makers of the 1998 movie "Meet Joe Black" wanted to convey the idea that the Anthony Hopkins character was a man with the world at his feet, they cast the Pierre penthouse as his residence, filming the exterior from a helicopter and shooting the views from its windows.

The panorama seen through those windows has changed considerably in the last 76 years, and as glassy new condos pop up all over town, the penthouse retains enough of its original grandeur to make a visit there feel like stepping into an ever rarer New York.

As an apartment, it is a peculiar space with some surprisingly modest-size rooms orbiting the gargantuan salon. For a family of four, dining in the former ballroom might feel about as cozy as eating in Grand Central Terminal after the crowds have gone.

But for the American and European billionaires who have been viewing the triplex as a potential pied-à-terre, such quibbles are largely beside the point.

"People really look at it like buying a rare piece of art rather than an apartment," said Ms. Sample, the broker.

"It's not like buying a penthouse in a new building where the top five floors are basically all identical and all called penthouses," she added. "It's a thing of beauty that can't be replicated."

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