The château-style Towers Nursing Home on Central Park West between 105th and 106th streets stands like a regal but now destitute dowager amid restored brownstones and rehabs with intercoms, its red-brick and limestone exterior badly scarred by years of neglect and defacement.
The crumbling structure—with four conical towers, intricate wrought-iron balustrades, and myriad arched windows—is at the center of a conflict between community residents and a real estate developer over how the property should be used. The 116-year-old building’s exterior has been landmarked since 1976, and however decrepit, it is a symbol of neighborhood identity.
The Save the Towers Committee, formed less than six months ago by a group of SoHa (South of Harlem) residents, is fighting to halt construction of a $200 million, 27-story luxury condominium in the Towers’ courtyard, plus 19 superluxury duplexes inside the Towers itself. The developer, Dan McLean of the Chicago-based MCL Company, plans to break ground by the end of the year. In a last-ditch effort to block the apartment complex, community advocates recently filed suit to overturn a city ruling that changed the site’s zoning from “mixed use” to “residential.”
Previous developers’ plans, none of which materialized, allowed for some public use, a major concern of the community. One plan called for an assisted-living facility for the elderly. Under the amended zoning, approved by the Board of Standards and Appeals in September, however, there is no need to consider anything besides apartments.
The Save the Towers group is also concerned that the interior of the historic building will be forever altered. But the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has ruled that since only the outside is landmarked, the interior can be gutted.
“We cannot turn back the economic forces in Manhattan,” says Carl McCaskill, a longtime area resident, “but we would like to maintain some relationship to the building [in the form of] programs, meeting rooms, [or] a public pool. Now it’s only for the very wealthy.”
In the early ’70s, the nursing home was forced to shut down when its owner, Bernard Bergman, was convicted of Medicaid fraud. Since then it has remained vacant. But while the Towers deteriorated, the Duke Ellington Boulevard Neighborhood Association (DEBNA), local politicians, and others waged a years-long campaign to turn around the area by restoring many abandoned or dilapidated houses on 105th and 106th streets, and by closing down known drug dens—like the former Castle Hotel, adjacent to the Towers—where prostitution flourished.
In this same dogged spirit of community activism, the Save the Towers Committee filed a petition on October 12 to block the zoning change, arguing that it overlooks the environmental impact of residential development: increased traffic, noise, and loss of parts of the landmark. Ironically, STC members, many of whom actively worked to improve the area around the Towers, might be viewed as opposing a project that promises further neighborhood development. Not so, says petitioner Elizabeth Kellner, a litigation lawyer who’s lived near the Towers, on Manhattan Avenue, since 1976. “We would love for some institution like a university or hospital to take over the Towers.”
Even so, support for the committee’s petition is not universal. The local community board has gone on record in support of the developer’s plan. Likewise, DEBNA president Ben Jannarone says that his association supports public use but is not in favor of litigation. “At the appropriate time we will approach the developer to . . . work on some kind of community access,” he says.
Because bureaucratic wheels have been set in motion, it’s unlikely that the committee will stop construction. The Towers saga echoes those in other parts of the city, such as West Harlem, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side, where development of higher-rent housing threatens the unique character of diverse communities and often forces displacement of residents.
On another front, Dr. Sarah Auchincloss, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, has been attempting to rally support and money for an American Museum of Medicine in the Towers, the home of the first cancer hospital in the United States (and the original site for Sloan-Kettering). “People lived and died in that building, whose purpose was to study medicine. It would be a great site for a museum,” she says. But a spokesperson for McLean told the Voice that “in no way will . . . this property [be] for public use.”
The Towers was designed by Charles Coolidge Haight, known for his collegiate and ecclesiastical architecture, which included several New York churches, and buildings at Columbia University’s first campus on Madison Avenue; work on the hospital began in 1884 and was completed in 1890.
The project came into being after Elizabeth Hamilton Cullum and her cousin Charlotte Gibbes Astor (wife of John Jacob Astor III), among others, persuaded Astor III to donate $185,000 to erect the hospital’s first wing, appropriately named the Astor Pavilion.
The founding of the New York Cancer Hospital was steeped in the medical politics of the era. Cullum (whose son died of cancer at age 26, and who herself died of uterine cancer the same year construction on the hospital began) and Charlotte Astor (who also died of uterine cancer) were on the board of the Women’s Hospital of New York, which refused to accept cancer patients.
In a dissertation on the history of the institutionalization of cancer, Dr. Lawrence Koblenz writes: “Conventions and convictions excluded cancer patients from traditional general hospitals in America until the end of the nineteenth century. . . . Cancer was considered a woman’s disease by physicians and laymen alike . . . because women were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer.”
In the blocks around the Towers, rents are already very high. But a couple of blocks west—on Columbus Avenue, where brownstones give way to tenements and public housing—the Frederick Douglass Community Center is trying to meet the needs of less affluent residents, who include an increasing number of immigrants, mainly Mexicans, Dominicans, and Central Americans. The center’s director, an affable man with graying hair named Robert H. Hill, says that in the community at large, there’s “a not too subtle fear of losing out to the upper class. [Real estate development] affects the amount of affordable housing, the prices stores charge, and the type of goods they sell. It also decreases the number of low-income people.” He describes the process as “class clashes.”
Indeed, all communities eventually face clashes of cultures and shifting demographics. Nonetheless, such struggles symbolize the healthy tug between economic imperatives and a community’s values. Most likely, the committee can’t save the Towers—the Board of Standards and Appeals says its decisions are seldom overruled, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission wouldn’t comment—but surely the battle is worth it in a city where money often wins out over what matters to a neighborhood.