New York Cancer Hospital

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455 Central Park West as it stands today[1], first built between 1884 and 1886 as the New York Cancer Hospital, now converted to luxury condominiums

The New York Cancer Hospital (NYCH) in New York City was a cancer treatment and research institution founded in 1884 . The hospital was located at 455 Central Park West between 105th St and 106th St. Built between 1884 through 1890, it was marveled as the first hospital in the United States dedicated specifically for the treatment of cancer.


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 caught the attention of the nation. Considered incurable, as well as contagious and shameful, Grant’s death the following year brought awareness of the disease. 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 III, Thomas A. Emmet, Joseph W. Drexel and other prominent New Yorkers laid the cornerstone for the New York Cancer Hospital, the country's first to devote itself exclusively to the care of cancer patients. 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. Ventilation was a key concern, so a duct ran up the centers of the wards to remove what was said to be 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 châteaux, like the Château de Chambord at Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France, and made it one of the most important pieces of institutional architecture in New York even till today. It is widely said it would much more readily be taken for an art museum than for a hospital.

Medical Innovation

During the hospitals inauguration, treatment for cancer was mostly palliative. The hospital offered what was considered the best treatments available for that time. Cancer treatment then meant, at best, easing pain and making the sufferer as comfortable as possible. Many patients came to the New York Cancer Hospital, in effect, to die, assuaged by morphine. Other forms of relief included carriage rides in Central Park and Sunday services in the hospital's Chapel of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of the suffering.

From its beginnings, the NYCH seemed fraught with misfortune. Just months after laying the cornerstone to the new hospital, one of its primary benefactors, Elizabeth Hamilton Cullum, succumbed to uterine cancer. In an ironic twist of faith, John Jacob Astor’s wife, Charlotte Augusta Astor also died of uterine cancer just a week shy after the hospitals grand opening in December 1887, missing her chance to be presumably cured. Due in part to his generous financial contributions to the facility, the New York Cancer Hospital’s first wing was appropriately dedicated the “Astor Pavilion”.

Inspired as much by modern medical theory as by 16th-century French châteaux, the architect Charles Haight's round towers were designed to deter germs and dirt from accumulating in sharp corners, which at the time was considered a harboring ground for disease. An air shaft ran vertically through the center of each tower to prevent air from stagnating in the wards. This design was considered the very latest in 19th-century ventilation technology: The New York Times commented in 1888 that "altogether, the[se] features marked a new departure in hospital construction and make this admirable structure a model of its kind."

The 20th century brought new techniques in cancer treatment, including radiation therapy. In 1921, Marie Curie visited the New York Cancer Hospital, by then renamed the General Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases, to see the brick and steel vault where the hospital kept its four grams of radium -- at the time the largest accumulation in the world. 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, ironically due to radium poisoning. In retrospect, early radiation treatments were often worse than the disease they were meant to cure. Radiation caused severe burns and, in some cases, additional cancers. New York Cancer Hospital may have been hailed a success for its good intentions, but there was no end to the suffering of those within. Plagued by the growing death rate, the NYCH had its own crematorium located in the basement of the facility. All the more dreadful by the vision, through its gothic windows, of the tall smokestack to the west of the main building.


Largely because cancer remained so deadly, the hospital soon ran into financial troubles. It came to be known as "the Bastille," a place to be feared and avoided by patients and patrons. At the turn of the century, administrators of the beleaguered hospital changed its name to the General Memorial Hospital, and again in the early 1920’s to the General Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases. Through the decades, the hospital endured its arduous dedication for its principle grounds of finding a cure for cancer.

In 1955, the General Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases moved out of the outdated Central Park West facility to its new location on the East Side. There it grew to become what is present day Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It was during this time that the former New York Cancer Hospital building began its decline. Under the new ownership of nursing home magnate Bernard Bergman, it was turned into a facility called Towers Nursing Home. The nursing home later became infamous for its negligence and lack of standards. The elderly patients testified to "atrocious conditions," including inadequate heat, pest infestations, physical abuse and negligence. The patients weren’t the only ones being neglected either. The old facilities were un-kept, filthy, and a "pungent odor" filled the air. The once immaculate building, became a sad derelict place. It was not soon there after that a state and federal investigation ensued, following a probe into allegations of Medicaid and Tax fraud that ultimately caused the home to close its doors in 1974.[2] The former New York Cancer Hospital was left in such a disastrous condition following the closure of the nursing home that there were talks of demolition before the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the hospital building a historic landmark in 1976.

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Former building

New Beginning

The beautiful medical hospital, once a marvel for both architectural allure and medical innovation, was succumbing to a slow death of decrepitude. Both nature and vandals took its toll on the failing facility and its future lay uncertain for many decades. In the neighborhood the building become popularly known as “the castle” due to its gothic round towers. The building was condemned to years of neglect, only frequented by the homeless and vandals.

Through the years, many promising developers expressed interest in the decaying property. Among some of them were hotelier and real-estate developer Ian Schrager, best known as part owner of the infamous Studio 54, whose attempt to renovate the landmark into luxury apartments failed. The old hospital lay abandoned for nearly 3 decades until March 2000, when a Chicago based developer MCL Companies gave new hope after all. With high hopes and generous financing, Daniel E. McLean, president and chief executive of the MCL Companies entered the picture when he bought the property for $21 million and began construction. But like numerous predecessors he was forced to halt the work due to financial holdups following the tragic events of 9/11. McLean envisioned a plan that called for massive renovation of the old hospital remnant into modern luxury condominiums, that includes a new modern 26 story tower adjacent to the landmark building. Among the new tenants are Columbia University, who bought several entire floors to use as residence to house senior faculty and visiting dignitaries. The purchase by Columbia, as well as a new construction loan, allowed McLean’s project to get back on track after work was halted due to lack of money following 9/11.

By early 2005, construction on the old landmark hospital, now called 455 Central Park West, had come to a completion. The once abandoned hospital had finally found a new promising life as luxury condominiums, with units that sell for as much as $7 million. The new facilities offer luxury units with cavernous circular rooms, lofty ceilings, and splendid views overlooking Central Park. Tenants enjoy such amenities as a spa, indoor pool, and 24 hour concierge service.