Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed contributor Chris Berger explores what some of the country's most interesting residential buildings used to be before they became livable homes. Care to suggest a building with a fascinating past life? Do drop us a line.
Luxury homebuyers don't typically seek out places associated with misery and death, but 455 Central Park West in Manhattan is an exception. The residential building, located across from Central Park between West 105th and 106th streets, is rooted in medical history. It opened in 1887 as the New York Cancer Hospital, the first of its kind solely dedicated to cancer treatment. During the Victorian era, cancer was regarded as a contagious disease that only afflicted the poor or untidy. The hospital's uberwealthy benefactors such as John Jacob Astor III sought to lift cancer's stigma and find a cure.
Architect Charles Coolidge Haight designed the fortresslike French Renaissance style hospital to facilitate the most progressive cancer treatment methods of the day. The patient wards were located in the five turret rooms, because it was believed that germs thrived in corners. The circular spaces also maximized light and ventilation and allowed a nurse to be attentive to more patients at once. But cancer research was in its infancy, and the hospital, which had a crematorium on the grounds, gained a reputation as a death trap. The best outcome most patients could hope for was to pass their final days in a booze—and morphine—induced stupor. The hospital's reputation improved in the early 1900s as doctors experimented with X-rays. Marie Curie, who discovered radiation therapy, visited the hospital in 1921 and was impressed by its radium stockpile—at 4 grams the largest in the world. In 1939, the hospital moved to the Upper East Side and is today known as the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
The Towers Nursing Home moved into the facility in 1956. Plagued by allegations of patient abuse and nasty living conditions, the Towers closed in 1974. The crumbling former New York Cancer Hospital Building and its negative reputation seemed destined to meet the bulldozer. But preservationists recognized its architectural and historic significance and successfully lobbied the city for landmark status in 1976. Over the next 25 years the vacant building was proposed for use as apartments, a small college, an assisted-living facility, and Columbia University student housing. None came to fruition. Meanwhile, it became a haven for crack addicts, a symbol of Manhattan Valley's decline.
Hope arrived in early 2001 when developer MCL Companies paid $24 million for the property, branded 455 Central Park West. They began construction of a residential tower on the parcel's western half and the adaptive reuse of the former hospital building into luxury homes. Then came September 11. The real estate financing market froze in the aftermath, and work halted. The former New York Cancer Hospital seemed to be eternally haunted by the ghosts that reportedly roam its halls.
The momentum shifted in late 2002, when Columbia bought 53 faculty housing units in the new, 27-story tower highrise. Shortly thereafter, MCL was approved for additional construction loans. The former hospital resembled a scene out of "Life After People." Plants and trees grew out of the walls, and the roots had dug out the mortar. Later additions were removed, and the interiors were gutted. Masons repaired the existing brick and brownstone, replicated the missing masonry, and repointed the mortar. The five conical roofs were rebuilt and left open to take advantage of the 40-foot tall ceilings. The original windows and logia were reproduced as well.
Architect RKT&B reconfigured the interior into 17 units. Most include 13-foot tall ceilings, maple floors, and wood-burning fireplaces. Amenities include a parking garage, spa, pool, and fitness center. Some homes were not completed to allow buyers to decorate to suit their own tastes. For example, the 5,000-square-foot former chapel space now features a vaulted ceiling, medieval stencil patterns on the wall, and stone arches and columns. It recently sold for $8 million, down from the original asking price of $17.5M. A four-bedroom, six-bath duplex is available for $5.65M.
455 Central West is a product of local historic preservation regulations; the former hospital undoubtedly would have been demolished had it not been landmarked by the city in the 1970s. Though an eyesore for decades, it has finally regained its striking appearance and has helped encourage new investment nearby. Plus, the ghosts still have a place to go bump in the night.