When a Polaroid executive, Julius Silver, bequeathed his fortune to New York University, the school came into possession of a spectacular view of Central Park in the form of Silver's 19th-floor apartment at the Pierre hotel.
Officials of the school kept quiet about the donation of the co-op apartment in announcing the record-breaking $150 million cash gift in February 2002, the month after the philanthropist died. The acquisition was even done under the radar of heavy-hitting real estate agents who can recite the names of illustrious residents of the five-star hotel and residential co-op at 61st Street and Fifth Avenue.
And only a select few at NYU are aware that what the university called Silver's pied-a-terre was converted into what could be the most desired unit of faculty housing in New York City - or anywhere.
Residing in the two-bedroom apartment are an NYU economic theorist, Thomas Sargent, and his wife, Carolyn Sargent, an associate provost at the school with the title of executive director of faculty housing.
The practice of luring star professors with keys to an otherwise unattainable home is common practice in market-driven academia, especially for urban schools such as NYU and Columbia University. Faculty members are well aware that the most sought after university-owned housing is reserved for the brightest stars. Still, that one of their own lives at the Pierre, along with NYU's most senior faculty housing administrator, left some faculty members stunned.
"I am amazed that a professor lives at the Pierre," a professor of comparative literature at NYU, John Chioles, told The New York Sun. "Can I move there?"
Mr. Chioles, who is on sabbatical in Greece, recently moved into a studio in the NYU-owned Washington Square Village, a monolithic complex that houses hundreds of faculty members and graduate students and would not have looked out of place in a provincial city of the Soviet Union.
Told about the apartment, an NYU sociologist, Edwin Amenta, qualified his amazement.
"This is the sort of thing that's astonishing but not really surprising," he said. "It's not completely out of line with their policies in terms of going the extra mile for somebody they're trying to recruit." Mr. Amenta lives with his wife and young twins in a one-bedroom NYU apartment at 14 Washington Place.
For faculty members who prefer indulging in schadenfreude, there's some comforting news: NYU wants to cash out of the Pierre apartment before real estate prices drop. The Sargents could be moving to the Washington Square neighborhood as early as the fall.
A spokesman for NYU, John Beckman, wouldn't comment on the Pierre apartment's occupants, but he said, "It was always part of the understanding that this apartment, as part of the gift, would ultimately be sold."
Downplaying the good fortune of the apartment's occupants, Mr. Beckman said, "It's not like having to move is some big treat." He also noted that the occupants pay rent but would not say how much. Faculty members living in NYU housing typically pay below market rates.
Ms. Sargent did not return calls for comment. Mr. Sargent referred an email inquiry to the university's public relations office.
Mr. Sargent, whom NYU recruited from Stanford University, was one of the first major recruiting coups of NYU's president since 2002, John Sexton.
One of the architects of the "rational expectations" theory of macroeconomics - which, he has written, "asserts that outcomes do not differ systematically (i.e., regularly or predictably) from what people expected them to be" - Mr. Sargent was considered by NYU to be prime Nobel Prize material. Mr. Sexton said at the time the economist accepted the job that Mr. Sargent had done so in part because he was impressed with the president's ambitions for NYU, the central goal of which was turning the university into what Mr. Sexton dubbed a "common enterprise."
"I don't pitch. I look people in the eye and I say, 'This is what the enterprise is about and this is what we are committed to do,'" Mr. Sexton told The New York Sun in an interview in early 2003. "We don't give anybody free agent salaries."
Ms. Sargent, who for 10 years served as Stanford's director of faculty and staff housing, became head of a newly created office at NYU. She is responsible for overseeing faculty and staff housing policies, with authority over deciding how best to allocate NYU owned units to more than 1,500 professors and staff members. At a school with a housing crunch, Ms. Sargent's job is a complicated and important component of the university's efforts to recruit and retain faculty. In all, NYU owns 2,100 units of faculty housing, including 350 units that currently are occupied by people not affiliated with the university.
For the Pierre, where a three-level penthouse complex belonging to a Wall Street financier, Martin Zweig, is on the market for $70 million, the Sargents' home is actually relatively modest.
According to a floor plan obtained by the Sun, from an oval entry gallery, a visitor can either turn left into a 33-foot-by-18-foot living room or head down two hallways that lead to a 15-foot-by-16-foot library with built-in wood-panel bookcases. The library is connected to a 20-foot-by-16-foot master bedroom, adjacent to a 14-foot-by-12-foot dressing room. The living room, library, and master bedroom all look out onto Central Park from the Pierre's Fifth Avenue perch.
"It was really a lovely apartment," a broker at the Corcoran Group, Joan Kaplan, said. She had the apartment's listing in 1997 when Silver briefly put it on the market, but removed it, probably for tax reasons.
An agent at Brown Harris Stevens and a co-broker for Mr. Zweig's apartment, Elizabeth Sample, estimated the current market value of NYU's property to be between $5 million and $7 million.
The Pierre, constructed in 1929-30 by a Corsican hotel magnate, Charles Pierre Casalasco, is one of a small but growing number of hotel co-ops in the city. It shelters an eclectic assortment of millionaires and billionaires within its granite and cream-colored brick. Management of the hotel this summer changed hands from Four Seasons to Taj Hotels, which says it is spending $35 million on renovations of the 41-story landmark.
The Sargents share the Pierre with neighbors such as the owner of Harrods, Mohamed Al Fayed; the chairman of Viacom, Sumner Redstone; the financier Roy Neuberger, and Phyllis Mailman, the chairwoman of the 795 Fifth Avenue Corporation, the co-operative that owns the Pierre.
The NYU couple, along with other full-time residents, is entitled to the same five-star service lavished on the Pierre's hotel guests, who pay a weekday room rate ranging from $505 to $3,800 - the rate for the 1,300-square-foot presidential suite on the 39th floor.
The economist and the faculty housing director have access to Pierre's 24-hour concierge service, overnight shoe-shining, fitness room, salon, valet parking, and 24-hour in-room dining. Maids tidy up in the morning and return for turndown service at night. The Sargents can have high tea in the Pierre's sumptuous rotunda or, if heading to the park, phone downstairs for a picnic basket stuffed with grilled pencil asparagus salad, cherry tomato and Bermuda onion salad, cold sliced fillet of beef with horseradish sauce, and cheese, fruit, and crackers. The pampering isn't free. The picnic basket itself costs $65 and requires a $100 deposit for the china, cutlery, napkins, and blanket.
Monthly maintenance fees for the apartment are said to be between $6,000 and $7,000.
A spokeswoman for the city's Department of Finance, Lisa Maluf, said yesterday that NYU's tax-exempt status does not exempt its Pierre property from city taxes.