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A Quiet Retirement? No Thanks, They’ll Take Herald Square

May 13, 2019

Kim Velsey, The New York Times

When Carolyn and Bill Thornton decided to retire to Manhattan from San Antonio, where Mr. Thornton had been mayor in the mid-1990s, they started by looking at apartments in placid residential neighborhoods like the Upper West Side.

But they always came away from the tree-lined streets feeling something was lacking. They were moving to New York, in part, to be closer to their son and daughter. But they weren’t coming here for the peace and quiet. What they wanted was action.

They found it on the 34th floor of a Herald Square high-rise.

“When I walked in here, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Ms. Thornton said. “We wanted those views.”

Mr. Thornton added: “It’s a great way to wake up — seeing the sky, the clouds, the light. At night, it’s so beautiful. We always say it looks like diamonds.”

The couple went on to describe the many things they have seen in the seven years since they took up their perch high above the street in the Continental, a 53-story glass tower on Sixth Avenue: Fourth of July fireworks, the construction of several skyscrapers, the yellow river of taxis that flows along Sixth Avenue, parades, protests, marching drum lines and the occasional solitary trumpeter. During snowstorms, the flurries whirl around them as though they were inside a snow globe.

“Our daughter was like, ‘Why did you choose to live in Midtown?’” Ms. Thornton said. But they thought it ideal to be above all those subway lines and right in the mix of things, within walking distance of so many places.

“When we first moved here, we’d walk everywhere,” she said. “I think that’s the best way to get to know the city.”

Occupations: Ms. Thornton is a retired librarian; Mr. Thornton is a former mayor of San Antonio and a retired oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
California or New York: “In Newport or Laguna Beach, you wake up, the grass is green, the ocean’s blue, there’s a yoga class on the grass. You wake up the next day, the grass is green, the ocean’s blue, there’s a yoga class on the grass,” Mr. Thornton said. “We wanted a more stimulating environment.”

Fluctuating rent: It started at $7,100, rose to $7,400, then came down to $7,225. “We really appreciated that the owners adjusted the rent when the market went down,” Mr. Thornton said.
Party tricks: When friends come over, Mr. Thornton asks which colors they would like to turn the top of a nearby skyscraper. He then makes it happen with an invite-only app called Spireworks that allows users to control the colors of lights on nearby spires.
On becoming New Yorkers: “In Texas, it’s kind of rude to ask someone how much their house cost,” Ms. Thornton said. “But here, everyone is fascinated by real estate.”

Of course, there is the matter of navigating the crowds.

“Leaving the building is like entering a motorway; there’s a constant flow of people,” Mr. Thornton said. “If you don’t like that, you’re not going to like Midtown. But we like the excitement.”

“It’s like living in a movie set,” Ms. Thornton said.

Before moving to New York, the couple had only ever lived in Texas, where Ms. Thornton worked as a librarian and Mr. Thornton, in addition to his term as mayor, was an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.

“We’d lived in San Antonio for 40 years. We were deeply embedded there: in our church, civically, professionally,” Ms. Thornton said. “And we both had good lives, complete lives. But we were open to new opportunities; we wanted to grow in a different way.”

The day they left their house in Texas, Ms. Thornton said their daughter called to ask if she was doing O.K. “I said, ‘Well, yeah!’”

“We had to let go to allow this to happen,” Mr. Thornton said. “We knew we couldn’t maintain a residence there if we were really going to live here. Like Cortes, we burned the boats on the beach.”

From their sparsely decorated two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment — their philosophy is who needs paintings on the wall when you have a stunning view in every room — they make regular excursions to plays and musical performances. On a recent morning, they walked over to the New York Philharmonic to hear Brahms Symphony No. 4 at one of the orchestra’s open rehearsals.

“We’re sitting there on Wednesday morning listening to this world-class music,” Ms. Thornton said.

On Sundays, they walk over to services at Marble Collegiate Church and, not infrequently, they also go out for lunch or dinner. They are such big fans of the neighborhood, in fact, that Mr. Thornton joined the local business improvement district, the 34th Street Partnership, as its residential representative.

Living in a commercial district has been lovely, he said: Cleaning crews keep the streets tidy, and there are plenty of potted plants, shrubs and trees, along with chairs, tables and free public programs.

One thing that did concern them when they moved into the building was the age of the other

tenants, who were decades younger. Would the building be noisy? Would they feel out of place?

Happily, the answer has been no on both counts. They have befriended several 30-something couples in the building and, feeling emboldened by the success of their cross-generational overtures, have also gotten to know several younger people through their church.

“We ended up having a lot of fun, going to brunch together,” Ms. Thornton said. “I feel like a lot of people in this town miss having an older generation around, and we were totally free. We weren’t their parents. I can’t imagine that happening in any other place.”

They have also discovered some distinct advantages to being the only resident graybeards. For most of the day, the building’s public terrace is essentially their private terrace. Of late, they have taken to watching a pair of hawks that usually put in an appearance around 4 p.m.

“Because everyone else is working or going to school, when we go out, we’re usually the only ones there,” Mr. Thornton said. “We take some wine and our binoculars, and go on up.”