Creating 'the friendliest tree in town'

The Christmas tree that stands in the lobby of a luxury apartment house on Manhattan's Upper West Side each year doesn't look very chic - its bells are really paper cups, its doves are made from cotton, and its paper snowflakes are cut out by hand and colored with crayons. But to the residents of the big apartment building on the corner of West 83rd Street - where Babe Ruth once lived - it's the friendliest tree in town.

That's because all of its decorations have been lovingly made over the years by children living in the building. Each one proudly bears the name of the youngster who fashioned it and represents his or her personal gift to the building - 110 Riverside Drive.

The holiday tradition is now more than a dozen years old, and the branches of the eight-foot pine carry the names of children who have long since grown up. But those who still live in the building or who come back to visit invariably search through the decorations each year to see if their creations hang there for another season.

In the midst of the bustling city of New York, where many people don't even know the names of their neighbors, this building and this tree reflect an unusual community spirit. It is one time of the year when a small-town atmosphere prevails - from the busy doormen who whistle merry holiday tunes, to the people who usually hurry in and out of the wood-paneled lobby but who now pause for a moment to enjoy the festive decorations.

Each December a cheery notice is posted in the building's three elevators inviting new residents, and old ones as well, to join the tradition and ''catch the lovely feeling . . . of surely the coziest Christmas tree in town.''

The notes are put up by Nancy Sutton, an advertising copywriter who has lived in the building for 20 years. She and Mario Forte, a dress designer who is another longtime resident, conceived the idea of the homemade decorations because they were fed up with the plastic tree and hokey Santa Claus that had been dispensing artificial holiday cheer in previous years. So they bought a live tree and asked the children in the building to decorate it.

The idea was so enthusiastically received that it has become a cherished Christmas tradition. It's even ecumenical, since among the decorations are a Hanukkah dreidel and some six-pointed Stars of David.

Now that the cost of trees has escalated, other residents have contributed to a fund to pay for the annual tree, which is propped in the building's front lobby.

Karen LaPeters, who lived in the building for 18 years before moving away recently, recalls that decorating the tree was something she looked forward to each Christmas. Now a college junior, she remembers: ''Every year we got new little kids in the building and new little ornaments on the tree. That's what makes it so special. It's a real honor for the kids to make something and hang it up where they'll see it every time they walk into the lobby.'' The star she made years ago is among those that will be hung again this year.

Ten-year-old Michael Rothman likes the tree in the lobby of No. 110 because ''it's not so regular like other trees.''

Stephen Shernicoff, 16, says the tree has always been special, because ''the kids trim it. Instead of a lot of grown-ups buying stuff, kids put up their feelings on the tree. We show off our building and the people who live in it with our handicrafts while other buildings use assembly-line plastic balls.''

Six-year-old Matthew Gordon plans to make a star this year, ''because all trees have stars.'' Matthew's 41/2-year-old sister, Meredith, wants to help, too. ''I'll make a diamond so I can put it on my finger,'' she says. If Meredith decides to part with her new diamond, Miss Sutton will find a place of honor for it on this year's tree, as she does for all new contributions. ''Everyone loves our tree, because it's unfancy and real, and that's what Christmas is all about, '' she says.

Once she finishes trimming the tree in the lobby of 110 Riverside Drive, her Christmas duties aren't over. On the Sunday before Christmas, she leads the members of the West 83rd Street Block Association in their annual holiday carol swing through the neighborhood, having first warmed them up in a cookies-and-cider rehearsal around her piano.

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