Shadows on the Wall
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times
The Gothic hulk on Central Park West, once a cancer hospital, then a scandal-ridden nursing home, is being reborn as a luxury condominium.
By JIM RASENBERGER
Published: January 23, 2005
ON a late night in the early 1980's, Mary Beth Polasek, accompanied by her then-husband, Ted, and a friend named Charlie, ventured into the old castle on Central Park West and 106th Street. Guided by the beams of their flashlights, they creaked up the stairs to the top floor, passed through a wide hall, then entered one of the turrets. The circular room was vast and empty, and littered with chunks of plaster. The high conical roof, damaged years earlier in a fire, gaped open to the elements and the dim stars.
Long ago, the building had been the notorious Towers Nursing Home, and long before that, the renowned New York Cancer Hospital. Now it was an abandoned ruin. Everyone in the neighborhood simply called it "the castle" because its gray stone walls, five turrets and gabled dormers all gave it the countenance of a Gothic fortress. Like any castle worthy of the name, this one was gloomy and forbidding. Stray cats slinked through the weeds and rubbish. Next door, the Castle Hotel ran a brisk trade in prostitution and crack.
Ms. Polasek should have been afraid that night, but she was not. "I've seen a lot of ghosts since then," she said recently. "But I didn't see any that night. I wasn't spooked. We were young and foolish. We were crazy, happy kids."
Before leaving, Ms. Polasek rescued a few discarded artifacts. In one room, she came upon an "unspeakably lovely" antique wooden toilet. In another, she discovered sepia-stained photographs of men and women spilling out of several open suitcases. Ms. Polasek, an artist, took the photographs home and set them into a collage. "They must be the people who lived there," she said. "I wanted to save them."
Only later did it occur to her that their spirits might have been present the night she entered the castle. Or, more to the point, that they are still there today, looking down in shock from their spectral perches as 455 Central Park West - as the castle was recently christened - is reborn as a luxury condominium.
Ms. Polasek will not be among those moving in. "As much as I would love to have $7 million for an apartment," she said, "I would never want to live in a building that I think is probably haunted."
This sentiment is shared by many who have lived near the castle through its long demise and, now, its astonishing transformation. Whether they believe the castle is literally haunted by the dead or only figuratively haunted by the past, many Manhattan Valley residents find its restoration strangely unsettling, not to mention utterly incongruous with the dilapidated ruin they came to know and even love.
Next month, with most of the units in its new adjoining 26-story high-rise already taken, 17 apartments in the landmark castle will be finished and ready for occupancy. Priced from $3.5 million to $7 million, the apartments will feature cavernous circular living rooms with lofty ceilings and splendid park views, and will include such amenities as a spa, an indoor lap pool, and 24-hour concierge service. As the sales brochure puts it, residents will be bathed in "surpassing opulence" and "timeless elegance," while "reverently preserved architectural details echo a grander age."
Not to be heard among the echoes is a word about the actual past of the building. The omission is slightly ludicrous but entirely predictable. As anyone who has lived in New York longer than a few weeks knows, the past is easily discarded in this city. Buildings change, their contents shift, and eventually just about everybody who knew what was once where forgets or dies.
This truth is hard enough to accept when it applies to a favorite corner restaurant; harder still when it applies to a building with a troubling past. Surely such buildings have earned themselves immunity from forgetfulness.
In fact, though, they have not. Addresses that once seared themselves into the city's consciousness - the Kew Gardens foyer where Kitty Genovese was slain by a psychopath in 1964; the Greenwich Village brownstone where Joel Steinberg beat his daughter and wife in the 1980's - are forgotten. The Octagon Tower on Roosevelt Island, once home of the forlorn New York City Lunatics Asylum, is about to be incorporated into a mixed-income housing development. The former Asch Building near Washington Square, where 146 people perished in the 1911 Triangle Waist Company fire, now thrives as a biology building at New York University.
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