As of this writing, some 28,500 buildings within the 108 historic districts and the 18 historic district extensions of New York City are protected by the Landmarks law; there are 1,316 individual landmarked buildings and 114 landmarked interior spaces (the Merchant’s House is one of them). The reason for the small number of landmarked interiors is, of course, that over the years, owners of old buildings customarily renovate them to one degree or another, obscuring the original design and architectural features.
Since the landmark designation of a building protects only the exterior, the owner is free to do what he wants inside—anything from reconfiguring the original space by removing a few non-supporting walls to a gut renovation. And what often happens is that the building undergoes not only an interior architectural transformation but a functional one as well. A library becomes a public theater; a courthouse becomes a library; a bank becomes a drugstore. Preservationists call it adaptive reuse. And thank goodness for it, for it is what sustains our historic buildings.
However, when hints of the former usage of the building are recognizable, my imagination always goes into overdrive, trying to figure out what the original looked like. Whenever I visit the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, housed in the old Carnegie Mansion, for example, I inevitably spend more time teasing the Carnegies’ home out of the museum space than I do looking at the exhibits. The Museum is currently closed for a two-year renovation. I fervently hope that whatever they are doing doesn’t make it harder for me to indulge in this activity.
Sometimes it’s just not possible to remove all vestiges of the former incarnation. The old Cancer Hospital building has got to be one of the scariest buildings in New York City—both architecturally and historically.When you first come upon it, the question that immediately pops into your mind is, “What on earth is that?” What that is now is a building of luxury condominiums. What it was when it was built in 1884-1890 was the first hospital in the United States to be devoted to the treatment of cancer and research of the disease. It was designed by Charles Haight, a prominent New York City architect of the time. With its conical roofs pierced by dormers and the large circular towers, it recalls a 16th century French chateau. The design, however, was influenced more by medical imperatives than by some romantic vision. The round towers made circular wards possible. They admitted more light and air than rectangular wards, and nurses positioned at a central station could more easily monitor the patients. Because of the round shape, there was more space between the heads of the beds, and the wards were easy to clean because there were no corners where dirt and germs could lodge. A central ventilation shaft removed foul air as openings in the outside walls between the windows admitted fresh air. The air could be be completely exchanged every five minutes. But even with the most modern hospital design and the best medical treatment of the time available, there was little hope then for cancer patients .
At the turn of the century, the name of the hospital was changed to the General Memorial Hospital and in 1955, it moved to a new location on the East Side, in time becoming the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The old hospital building was turned into the Towers Nursing Home. For almost 20 years, the nursing home was mismanaged, the patients abused, and the building neglected. The miserable history of the nursing home culminated in a scandal for tax fraud, and in 1974, it closed. The building barely escaped demolition by the landmarking of the building in 1976.
Efforts at developing the site periodically came to naught, and the building became a magnet for the homeless and vandals until 2000 when a developer who would ultimately be successful in his efforts began renovation of the old hospital. When it finally came time to adapt the space for luxury apartments, there was nothing that could be done about those towers. The architects really couldn’t square the circle even if they had wanted to. Therefore, some of these eccentric apartments have huge dramatic round rooms, which are promoted as one of the attractions of the property. But I don’t know. If you were aware of the original function of that round room, it seems to me it would be very hard not to be always thinking about it.
But then perhaps one of the most positive features of this landmarked site is that its presence on Central Park West serves to remind us of how far we have come in the treatment of cancer since 1890.