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455 Central Park West

455 Central Park West

Tower at complex looms tall over Upper West Side skyline when viewed from the resevoir at 90th Street and Fifth Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

After years of neglect, this impressive, landmark property that was originally the New York Cancer Hospital was being converted to 100 condominum apartments in the original building and a new, adjacent tower in 2004.

The low-rise, chateau-like buildings have been converted into 19 apartments, many with circular living rooms 37 feet in diameter and dramatically tall windows overlooking Central Park. The development's very handsome, red-brick 26-story tower will have 81 apartments, many with corner bay windows.

The architects for the conversion are RTKB Architects, Perkins Eastman Architects and Victor Caliandro. The original structures at 106th Street were built in 1886 and designed by Charles C. Haight. For many years, they were occupied by the Towers Nursing Home.

In their excellent book, "The A.I.A. Guide to New York City, Fourth Edition" (Three Rivers Press, 2000), Norval White and Elliot Willensky note that "this castellated emigré from the Loire Valley has charmed the Upper West Side for more than a century."

Original cancer hospital at the site

The original buildings with their turrets remain

It is the most visible landmark in the area known as the Manhattan Valley, which is south of St. John The Divine Cathedral and Columbia University, which are not too far away.

The old and the new

The old and the new at the complex

Streetscapes/Central Park West Between 105th and 106th Streets; In the 1880's, the Nation's First Cancer Hospital

Published: December 28, 2003

In his "Streetscapes" column in The New York Times December 28, 2003 Christopher  Gray provided the following commentary about this site:

"THE 1887-90 New York Cancer Hospital on Central Park West between 105th and 106th Streets has sat unused for three decades. But a 26-story condominium tower being completed at the rear of the property has given new life to the landmark structure, which is itself being renovated as part of the project into large and expensive condominiums.

"In the summer of 1884, former President Ulysses S. Grant developed throat cancer. He lived in a brownstone at 3 East 66th Street, and his ensuing decline, and his death the next year, caught the attention of the nation. Although his cancer was inoperable, others were more fortunate, since the development of anesthesia in the mid-19th century had finally given doctors a surgical treatment for cancer.

"In the year of Grant's diagnosis, John Jacob Astor, Thomas A. Emmet, Joseph W. Drexel and other prominent New Yorkers laid the cornerstone for the New York Cancer Hospital, the first hospital in the United States specifically for cancer treatment. Designed by Charles C. Haight and completed in 1887, the first portion of the hospital, designated solely for women, was at the southwest corner of 106th and Central Park West.

"At the dedication, Grant's physician, Fordyce Barker, said that cancer was 'not due to misery, to poverty, or bad sanitary surroundings, or to ignorance or to bad habits, but a disease afflicting the cultured, the wealthy and the inhabitants of salubrious localities.'

"In 1890 the hospital was expanded south, and in both sections Haight designed circular wards, about 40 feet in diameter, in part to facilitate better observation by a nurse at a central desk and in part because the design offered more space between the heads of the beds - but mostly because corners were thought to harbor germs.

"Ventilation was a key concern, so a duct ran up the centers of the wards to remove what The New York Tribune said were the 'intense odors' caused by the disease.

"Haight worked the round wards into the exterior architecture, which he executed in deep red brick and soft brown Belleville brownstone, with great conical towers irregularly placed on the three fronts. The big, broad towers gave the hospital the character of a French chateau, like the one at Chambord in the Loire Valley, and made it one of the most important pieces of institutional architecture in New York. The Tribune said it 'would much more readily be taken for an art museum than for a hospital. In an 1899 issue of The Architectural Record, the critic Montgomery Schuyler criticized the asymmetry of the Central Park West front and the 'degenerate English Gothic' detail, despite the design's superficially French character. But he concluded that the hospital was 'an eminently successful work.'''

Mr. Gray noted that "The 20th century brought new techniques in cancer treatment, including radiation." In 1921, Marie Curie visited the facility that had been renamed the General Memorial Hospital and later the Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases "to see the steel vault where the hospital kept its four grams of radium - at the time the largest accumulation in the world, according to The New York Times. Dr. Edward H. Rogers, who was escorting her, assured The Times that 'there is no case on record of anyone being injured in health by radium.' He denied that Curie had been harmed by the radioactive material, saying she had been ill recently only from anemia. In this period the hazards of radium were beginning to emerge, sparking defensive claims by its proponents. She died in 1934 because of radium poisoning."

In 1939, the hospital relocated to 444 East 68th Street, a building designed by James Gamble Rogers with handsome Moderne-style brickwork and it known now as the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The Central Park West complex was sold to a developer in 1949 and eventually converted into the Towers Nursing Home, which was operated by Bernard Bergman, who went to prison in 1976 for patient abuse and financial mismanagement.

"The nursing home closed in 1974; in 1976, the building was designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but it has been vacant for three decades. Over the years, several developers tried and failed to revive it. But now the MCL Companies, a Chicago-based developer, is finishing a residential condominium tower in the courtyard behind the original building, a project that includes a renovation of the former hospital into 17 condominium apartments. Designed by two architectural firms, RKT&B and Perkins Eastman, the new 455 Central Park West has apartments of up to four bedrooms. Units in the tower went on the market this month at prices ranging from $1.35 million to $4.5 million. In the old hospital building, a typical unit will have a living room about 38 feet in diameter created from an old circular ward. Completion of these units is scheduled for next summer, with prices expected to range from $3.5 million to $7.5 million."

It is remarkable that the wonderful turrets survived so long without being occupied and it is very nice that the tower that now adjoins them is quite contextual and attractive.  One of the reasons that the site was unused for so long is that this part of the Upper West Side was not considered chic.


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