As I started to research today’s story, I began to reflect on my life before I owned a home. For more than twenty years I had lived in various apartments. One of my rules for choosing an apartment was that it had to be on the top floor. My rationale for this was noise. The constant thumping of people walking around above my head made it very difficult for me to get any sleep.
Of course, living above others doesn’t always work out. Once I lived above a heavy smoker and the smell would seep through the floor and stink up my apartment. Perhaps the oddest problem, however, occurred in the mid-1990’s with a couple that lived directly under me. Let’s just say that the female half of that relationship was a screamer and leave it at that. After about two months of listening to them, the problem was resolved when the two were evicted for non-payment of their rent.
Well, today’s story is also about apartment living, but it didn’t involve me in the slightest. First, a little background. Way back in 1869, William A. Engelman, who had earned his wealth by selling horses to the Union Army during the Civil War, purchased several hundred acres of beachfront property in Gravesend, Brooklyn. He named it Brighton Beach, supposedly after the resort town in England. In 1871, he built the Ocean Hotel and in 1878 completed Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion and Ocean Pier, which attracted thousands of affluent people seeking to escape the crowded city. One could get to Brighton Beach by several rail lines or via the then newly completed Ocean Parkway, which had no homes along it at the time and allowed families to take a leisurely, scenic path to the oceanfront.
One of the guests who greatly enjoyed his stay at the Ocean Hotel was robber baron Auston Corbin, who had consolidated all of the rail lines in the area into the Long Island Rail Road, and he decided to purchase his own chunk of beachfront and build his own grand resort. He named it the Manhattan Beach Hotel and, being an anti-semite, he forbid Jews from staying there.
Not to be outdone, William Engelman built the even larger Brighton Beach Hotel in 1878. He soon added the Brighton Beach Racetrack, followed by the Brighton Theater and the Brighton Music Hall. Unfortunately, the hotel was built too close to the ocean and the constant battering of the waves threatened to undermine the very foundation of the hotel. In what would prove to be one of the major engineering feats of its day, the entire hotel, estimated to weigh in excess of 8-million pounds, was placed on to 112 rail cars and pulled along 24 sets of railroad tracks by two-sets of three locomotives and moved 600-feet (approximately 180 meters) inland.
The incredible success of these hotels was not too last. There was no single factor that killed off their popularity. It was partly due to the carnival-like atmosphere of nearby Coney Island spilling over into Brighton Beach, the construction of lower-priced hotels, a 1908 law that forbid betting at racetracks, the Great Depression, the suburbanization of Brooklyn and a host of other reasons.
Those grand Victorian hotels are long gone and the only remianing evidence of this once spectacular vacation area is the boardwalk itself.
In 1955, the late Brooklyn developer Alexander Muss took a long-term lease on 21-acres of property that faced the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. His grand plan was to construct high-rise housing on much of this land, but a 1961 rezoning law limited them to building just two tall buildings.
Called the Seacoast Towers, the first 16-story building was completed in 1961, followed by a second twenty-story tower in 1962. The complex, which sat directly on the location of the former Brighton Beach Hotel, contained a total of 590 apartments.
An ad in the January 3, 1961 publication of The New York Times describes Seacoast Towers as follows:
“Correction. It is not true that our 4-room (one-bedroom) apartments rent at $250. This misconception is understandable considering the outstanding features of our 16-story luxury apartments… the only apartments in Brooklyn directly on the ocean… just 37 steps from boardwalk, beach and ocean… magnificent lobby designed by Maurice Lapidus… striking canopied entrance… doorman service… men’s and women’s private beach locker rooms… Private 14-foot terraces for every apartment… and more. The truth is that our 4-room apartments rent for only $160. Why not come up today and see for yourself. Mail chute – Oak parquet floors – pre-war room sizes – 12 cu. ft. GE refrigerator-freezer – gallery-foyer – separate dining room – oversized kitchen with brunch tables. Seacoast Towers. Brighton 14th Street at the Boardwalk-Brooklyn.”
Sounds spectacular, doesn’t it? A one-bedoom, spacious apartment that overlooks the ocean for just $160 per month, which would be approximately $1350.00/month today.
Perhaps the details that are most important to the story that you are about to hear appeared on May 10, 1959 on the front page of the real estate section of The New York Times. It reads, “Airspace within the walls was designed to make the building virtually soundproof. Vermiculite ceilings also help to reduce sound transmission between floors.”
Soundproof is not exactly the first word that one thinks of when you start to hear the details of an argument that occurred between two of the residents of Seacoast Towers. It’s the story of two guys named Sam. The first is 55-year-old Sam Scheir, who lived with his wife and daughter in apartment 16-V at 35 Seacoast Terrace – the taller of the two apartment buildings. Scheir was the maître d’ at the Hotel Diplomat in Manhattan and typically arrived home around 2 AM each morning. Exhausted, he would typically fall into a deep sleep and snore loudly. To keep confusion between the two Sams to a minimum, I will refer to Scheir as Snoring Sam for the remainder of the story.
Next up we have Sam #2: 46-year-old Samuel Gutwirth, who was a publicist and had to wake up early each morning to make his business rounds. When the Gutwirths rented their apartment in the supposedly soundproof building, they got the surprise of their lifetime when they discovered that a thin wall separated their apartment from the next. He claimed to be able to hear mild whispers from the adjoining apartments. Worse yet, the Gutwirth’s bed was positioned on the other side of the wall from where Snoring Sam’s bed was located. And just like clockwork, every morning around 2:30, the Gutwirths were awoken by the loud sounds being generated from Snoring Sam’s slumber. Sam Gutwirth had no choice but to bang against the wall to wake Snoring Sam up. So, I will refer to Sam #2 as Banging Sam.
This snoring-and-banging, back-and-forth ritual continued until January 20, 1964. That’s when Snoring Sam dragged Banging Sam into Brooklyn Criminal Court charging him with making unnecessary noise. He claimed that Banging Sam had been knocking on his bedroom wall five or six times each night for the previous six months.
Banging Sam was forced to hire a lawyer to represent him, a man named Joseph Mandell. He told Judge Matthew Fagan, “Mr. Scheir is a snorer of gigantic proportions and gives off an animalistic roar with the quality of a lion’s roar that vibrates the rooms. The very anticipation of their beginning at about 2:30 AM every day has shaken my client and his wife, deprived them of sleep, injured their health, and, in fact, constitute an assault upon their persons.”
The judge questioned Snoring Sam as to whether he did really snore, to which he replied, “I don’t know. I’m asleep.” He added, “How would you like it if every time you settled down for a good snooze, some idiot started pounding?”
In his defense, Banging Sam told the judge that he and his wife Ida, “simply can’t put up with it. I banged on the wall to try and shut him up.”
Snoring Sam finally conceded that he was, in fact, a snorer and had been doing so for many years. However, he felt that snoring was a natural act and one that simply cannot be avoided or controlled, while Banging Sam’s actions were a deliberate and calculated attempt to unnerve Mr. and Mrs. Snoring Sam. He told the court, “He is undermining my health and the health of my family.” He added, “It is his intention to force us out of our apartment.”
It’s not that Banging Sam didn’t try to talk over the problem with Snoring Sam. He suggested that he consult a doctor about his problem, possibly wear a snore-warning device, switch bedrooms with his daughter, or simply move his bed to the opposite side of the room. Snoring Sam refused to do any of these things.
What a mess. If you were Judge Fagan, how would you rule in this unusual case? Well, he did the next best thing: he pushed a decision off into the future and told the two to return back to court on February 13th. He suggested that Banging Sam file a cross-complaint, which he did do, and when they return to court, he asked them to bring their wives. The judge wanted to hear their sides of the story. He also asked that the two consult their landlord, Seacoast Homes, Inc., to see if they could do something to help solve this problem.
It wasn’t long before this absurd story was picked up by the wire services and told in newspapers all across the country. The very next day after the court hearing, the New York Daily News ran a lengthy story featuring comments from both sides of this snoring war.
Banging Sam told reporter Michael Mok, “Let me put it this way. He can’t help his snoring but at least he could move his bed. It’s cheek by jowl with mine and when I said to him that maybe he might move it, he said the best thing I could do would be to get earplugs.” He added, “My problem is that my wife simply can’t put up with it. Now what are we to do? I banged on the wall to try and shut him up, but that only woke him from a deep sleep.”
In response, Snoring Sam stated, “I mean, how on earth would you like it if every time you settle down for a snooze, some idiot started pounding rump-titty-rump-titty-rump-rump-rump – or shave-and-a-hair-cut-two-bits?”
A photograph accompanying the article showed Banging Sam and his wife Ida in bed with a giant reel-to-reel tape recorder and a Type 1551-A sound level meter – which the article claimed cost $460 (about $3,800 today) on the open market – sitting on the nightstand. They claimed to have hired a man to operate this equipment and measure how loud the snoring was, but while waiting for Snoring Sam to arrive home, the operator fell asleep and awoke Banging Sam with his own loud snores.
The Daily News reporter borrowed the equipment to try it out at various other locales. He determined that Snoring Sam was producing sounds that were equivalent to those produced by a hungry, growling labrador retriever and a midget tap dancing. He also determined that Snoring Sam was only slightly quieter than a news copy boy cracking Brazil nuts open. No, I am not making this up…
When the court date of February 13, 1964 finally arrived, Judge Fagan was not present. He must have decided to run as far away from this case as possible to avoid having to make a decision. Instead, Judge Arthur Dunaif presided over the proceedings. Snoring Sam was there with his newly hired lawyer, Irving J. Linder, but Banging Sam was a no-show.
Snoring Sam told the court that he wished to withdraw his complaint against Banging Sam and the judge agreed. The whole thing was thrown out.
So, why this sudden change of heart?
Upon exiting the courtroom, Snoring Sam Scheir told newsmen that everything was resolved because someone had built a thick sound barrier between the two apartments. The odd thing is that no one would take credit for building this new wall. Snoring Sam denied having anything to do with it. Banging Sam Gutwirth said that he certainly didn’t do it. And both the management at Seacoast Homes and the builders, Alexander Muss & Sons, also denied having had built it.
Today, Seacoast Towers is a luxury co-op building. I did a quick check on Zillow and current selling prices range between $381,200 for a 1-bedroom, 1-bath to a high of $729,000 for a 2-bedroom, 2-bath unit.
Yet, the only review on Yelp awarded 35 Seacoast Terrace a one-star rating and states, “Very thin walls, stupid neighbor watching TV all day! Cigarette smell in the corridor! Old building.” I guess that they never did soundproof the remaining walls in the building and is the reason why, when my wife and I bought our house, I insisted that there be some space between us and our neighbors.
On that note, I hope that everyone gets some nice, quiet slumber time tonight. Sweet dreams…
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.