Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

On New York’s Fifth Avenue, Trump’s White House North

NEW YORK - The world's power address du jour is a sheath of soaring black glass on Fifth Avenue, at the entrance to which an officer in combat armor - his fingers on an assault rifle - took a moment the other day to tell a tourist where to find the city's best pizza.

A parade of technology tycoons bounded by, on their way to meet with the building's developer and best-known resident, President-elect Donald Trump, a procession monitored in the lobby by a swarm of Secret Service agents, reporters and spectators that included one Kit Regone of Maryland.

"It's befitting a king," the retired production manager said, standing behind a velvet rope and taking in all the pink marble, golden mirrors, gleaming escalators and ever-tinkling, four-story waterfall that define Trump Tower's lobby.

The White House may be the nation's time-honored symbol of power, but Trump is establishing his 58-story colossus at 725 Fifth Avenue as a stage for his new role, potentially nipping at Washington's reputation as the center of American authority and the stature of its most famous address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

On most days, crowds of tourists, rank-and-file New Yorkers and candidates seeking jobs with the new administration endure a maze of checkpoints, barricades and police command posts on the traffic-choked streets that bound Trump Tower.

Their soundtrack is less "Hail to the Chief" and more honking horns, wailing sirens and irritated pedestrians moaning, "Are you kidding me?"

Across the street from the president-elect's entrance, behind more barricades between 56th and 57th streets, are a phalanx of television news cameras, all of them trained on the "T-R-U-M-P T-O-W-E-R" spelled out not once but twice above the revolving doors.

On the afternoon of his Jan. 20 inauguration, Trump is expected to move into the White House. But he has said he still plans to spend time in New York, where his wife, Melania, and 10 year-old son, Barron, will remain at Trump Tower, at least until the end of the school year.

How often Trump will be in New York is a looming question, but the president-elect is as famous for defying convention as he is for adoring his gold- and diamond-laden triplex high above Manhattan.

Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, said the president-elect called after his post-election visit to the White House and pronounced himself "very impressed" with his new residence, where the living quarters are some 10,000 square feet smaller than his current home.

"He kept telling me how beautiful it was and how much he liked the architecture," Stone said.

At the same time, Stone described his Queens-born friend as "the quintessential New Yorker," a "homebody" who "likes to sleep in his own bed." "Like all presidents," Stone said, "I expect he won't be at the White House all the time. Instead of bailing out for Camp David, he can come to New York on the weekends."

Protecting Trump during his transition is costing New York taxpayers upward of $500,000 a day, a price that has triggered no small amount of outrage from Mayor Bill de Blasio and prompted one city lawmaker to politely urge the president-elect to decamp to another one of his properties, perhaps in Florida.

An overwhelming majority of New York City voters rejected Trump's candidacy, and many grouse at the prospect of their city becoming his presidential backdrop. But Cindy Adams, a New York Post gossip columnist and longtime Trump friend, said she would understand if he preferred his home town to Washington, which she dismissed as overpopulated by fashion-challenged lawmakers who wear "plastic shoes with rubber soles."

"The White House is smaller than where he's used to living," Adams said. "He doesn't even have a proper ballroom there. You get 11 people into the Red Room and it's crowded."

Trump's choices in real estate could test whether Washington's pre-eminence in the country's political order depends on where the president spends his weekends - or weekdays for that matter. Yet the city's stature is not defined only by the White House, but also by the Capitol, Supreme Court and the myriad federal agencies located there.

"All the mechanics of government will remain in Washington," said Tammy Haddad, a D.C.-based media consultant steeped in the city's tribal customs. "And around the world, going to the White House is something every world leader wants. That's not going to change."

Yet, Haddad acknowledged one immediate difference wrought by Trump's New York-based transition. After previous elections, Café Milano in Georgetown was the place where Washington insiders could spy who was dining with whom and decode who was up for a Cabinet post.

Now, she said, the terrain fomenting speculation is the lobby of Trump Tower, which in recent days has hosted an ungainly mass of visitors including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, musician Kanye West, British politician Nigel Farage and an unidentified man who performed a perfect back flip.

"Is that Mike Pence?" asked Susan McKenzie, a tourist from Pennsylvania, motioning as she stood in the lobby toward a man who was in fact Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.)

A few feet away, Joe Lepore, 57, of Fort Lee, N.J., said he was hoping to deliver to the president-elect a Christmas card and a photograph of himself fist-bumping with Trump 16 months earlier outside a New York courthouse.

As much as he likes having Trump at Trump Tower, a building he believes should be officially designated "White House North," Lepore said tradition dictates that the president belongs in Washington.

"I'd like to see him 'Trump' up the White House, put his name on top of the building," he said. "I want to see him trick the whole thing out."

As challenging as it may seem to imagine, the White House can feel like a studio apartment to its famous occupants, even with 18 acres, 132 rooms and 31 bathrooms. A "gilded cage" is how President Ronald Reagan described the residence first occupied in 1800 by President John Adams.

Reagan liked to escape to his ranch in Santa Barbara, California, while President John F. Kennedy preferred Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and Richard Nixon retreated to Key Biscayne, Florida. Key West, Florida, was where Harry Truman spent the winters. George W. Bush's getaway was a one-story ranch on 1,600 acres in Crawford, Texas.

No president has made his weekend White House a Manhattan penthouse, a choice that may seem to challenge Trump's everyman bona fides.

"When a so-called populist moves the White House to Fifth Avenue, you have to say, 'What's going on here?' " said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who was an adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. "I don't think Trump is trying to make a point. He's just trying to get home - and his home happens to be a lot bigger and grander than the one the government is letting him live in."

Trump Tower includes a bar (Trump Bar), a restaurant (Trump Grill), and a store (Trump Gift Shop), which sells items such as Success by Trump, a fragrance "that captures the scent of the driven man," according to the Trump Organization website.

Under an agreement with the city, Trump Tower's lobby is accessible to the public from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., a fact that allows spectators an elevator-side perch to watch who's visiting the president-elect.

"Is anybody famous going to come out of the elevator?" asked Leandra Estrada, 39, an occupational therapist visiting from Texas, as she stood in the lobby last week.

That she was even allowed to stand there, Estrada said, proved that Trump "is with the people."

Her son, Mike, 22, nodded: "I see him on TV - he comes down, he walks around. It's more relaxed."

"He's the president of the people," Leandra said.

Trump has lived in his tower since he built it in the early 1980s, a project that ruffled preservationists who regarded it as the architectural equivalent of a gaudy stretch limousine parked alongside the avenue's more refined Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.

Trump celebrated his building's extravagance, gave tours of his Versailles-themed penthouse and touted sales of condominiums to stars such as Michael Jackson.

More than three decades later, New York's luxury market is dominated by newer, more expensive real estate, leaving Trump Tower as a bit of a "tired" throwback, said Gabby Warshawer, a data analyst for CityRealty, a real estate group.

While the average price of Manhattan condos rose 19 percent this year, she said, the cost of Trump Tower apartments were relatively stagnant. Of the eight condos that sold in the building this year, six had price cuts of between 5 and 33 percent.

"It's still considered a luxury condo," Warshawer said. "However, there are quite a lot more that command higher prices."

If the bedlam accompanying Trump's life as president threatens to make his building less attractive to buyers, one real estate agent recently tried a new pitch, touting the Secret Service presence as an amenity and calling the property Manhattan's "most secure."

The four police officers in front of the tower's entrance on Wednesday, each of them in helmets and swathed in body armor, seemed like sufficient evidence to back up that claim.

The officers' main focus at that moment was the performer known as the "Naked Cowboy," who had just arrived to pose for photos in his cowboy hat, white boots and underwear, on the back of which was written "T-R-U-M-P."

"That's my mother," Barbara Plott of Alabama said as she photographed the cowboy hoisting an older woman in the air.

Across the street, behind another set of metal barricades, Paul Rossen, 54, was selling "Dump Trump" buttons, which he said were making him more money than the anti-Trump "We Shall Overcomb" bumper stickers he peddled last year.

For all his antipathy toward Trump, Rossen said he wouldn't mind if the country's new leader is in New York as often as possible. "It's good for business, and I like money," he said. "It's expensive to live here, you know."