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Thread: West 56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues

  1. #1
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Default West 56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues

    Where the Gizmos Fizzled and the Gin Fizzed

    By CHRISTOPHER GRAY


    36 West 56th Street around 1884 and today. An early work of the architect Bruce Price, it was built for Dr. William J. Morton.
    The impressive stoop was replaced many years ago with a ground-floor store.

    WEST 56th STREET, from Fifth to Sixth Avenue, has a rowdy air: a tumble of old mansions, brownstones and shops. But the Landmarks Preservation Commission has found it interesting enough to designate five buildings there, a remarkably high number.

    However, that may be the high-water mark, for the commission’s embrace most likely will not take in the architect Bruce Price’s lovely, battered Queen Anne-style town house at 36 West 56th. The first resident, Dr. William J. Morton, an early advocate of electrical therapy and X-rays, treated the carriage trade but went to prison for mail fraud.

    Dr. Morton was the son of Dr. William T. G. Morton, acknowledged as a pioneer in the use of ether for anesthesia. But the senior Dr. Morton pursued claims for authorship and reward beyond what many others found reasonable. He died in 1868 unhappy with the results of his quest, and his son remained resentful for the rest of his life.

    In 1880 William J. Morton married Elizabeth Lee, whose father was a coal merchant named Washington Lee. The following year, Mr. Lee bought a lot at 36 West 56th, a street of comfortable but slightly worn brownstones, and hired the young Bruce Price to build a house for the newlyweds.

    Mr. Price, who later gained prominence as an architect to the upper class for his work at Tuxedo Park, N.Y., and elsewhere, designed a striking house of red brick with light stone trim. It was quite different from its dour brownstone neighbors.

    The ebullient Queen Anne style was all the rage, and the Morton house is neatly tricked up. The main portion of the rich red brick front flanks a large central bay, with terra-cotta ornament, rivet-head brick, patterned panels and pilasters surrounding big banks of windows with tiny square panes.

    Compared with the old brownstone model, this was a Ferrari racing a Ford.

    In an 1881 account, The Real Estate Chronicle noted that Dr. Morton was to have a kitchen at the top, an elevator, a dumbwaiter and offices on the ground floor. A critic for The Architectural Record in 1899 was pleased, saying “the general effect of the picturesque and spirited front to enliven the dull street is most delightful.”

    In 1882, while the house was under construction, Dr. Morton was one of the observers of the autopsy of Charles J. Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield in 1881.

    The New York Times remarked in 1893 that Dr. Morton had acquired “a great deal of celebrity” from treating President Ulysses S. Grant and others. One of his patients was William Henry Harrison’s granddaughter Marthena, who contracted scarlet fever in 1893.

    The New York Sun said that Dr. Morton sat her on a chair insulated from the ground by glass balls and passed thousands of volts of electrical current around her body. At the time the girl, who was either 3 or 5 at the time, depending on the account, had been receiving these treatments for five weeks. The Sun did not report on her progress, but Marthena lived until 1973.

    Dr. Morton was well known for his involvement in this new branch of medicine. The Chronicle referred to him as “the electrician,” and The Times in 1896 described him as “the leading electrotherapist in this country.”

    The doctor was also one of several pioneers of the X-ray. In 1896 he gave a lecture on the new method, and he showed more than 100 people in the audience the bones within their own hands.

    However, Dr. Morton had some other interests that got him in trouble. In 1913 he was convicted in a Canadian mining scam, and served a year in prison. At his conviction he protested his innocence and complained bitterly that the people of the United States had “allowed my father to die penniless at 48, and I had to take care of his family.”

    Gradually, the 56th Street block grew a 5 o’clock shadow of shabbiness, and by 1932 Mr. Price’s little masterpiece had become the Mona Lisa Club, one of many speakeasies in Midtown. After a raid in that year, The Gazette of Schenectady, N.Y., informed its readers that the club was “one of the most lavishly appointed in the New York ‘white light’ district,” apparently referring to a broad area of west Midtown.

    The Landmarks Preservation Commission has now designated five houses on the block, those at 10, 12, 17, 26 and 30. Two years ago the Historic Districts Council called for the designation of 36 West 56th Street, which is now apartments with a store below.

    But although Mr. Price is a well-known architect, and Dr. Morton makes an interesting story, designation would be a departure for the commission.

    No later than 1935 the Morton house was radically altered, with a ground-floor store extended out to the building line. All the other designated houses on the block present facades that appear close to their historic appearance. But 36, although intact above street level, now looks as if it had been kneecapped with a storefront that might be an enemy fortress in a “Lord of the Rings” movie. For small-scale structures, the loss of the ground floor has traditionally been a barrier to landmark designation.

    Its survival so far has been a matter of chance, not public policy, and things may remain that way.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/24/re.../24scapes.html

  2. #2

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    When I saw the photo on the left I thought to myself, who put that horrid mechanical unit on top of that poor brownstone...but I realized it was just a moden skyscraper in the background. What charming times we live in.

  3. #3
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    Default

    (this is actually West 56th Street)

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