Okay, so it’s the “little house” on the corner that really gets me here (sure, it’s not a house and at 6 stories it’s not really little, but you know). As I’ve said many a time, seeking out the juxtaposition of old and new is one of the endless joys of living in this city – and perhaps one of the unique joys that New York especially provides. I guess it’s one of the positives of living in the real estate capital of the world (it is the real estate capital of the world, right?), which by its very nature means shits not too regulated (don’t ask a Republican though). New stuff goes up, old stuff goes down, and sometimes they’re standing right next to each other. It’s fun to look at. Would New York be more exciting if no new buildings had gone up since the 1890s? Probably not, though sure, it might be ultimately prettier.
But what you get instead is the little house on the corner – a small joy to be sure, but a joy none the less. It’s an older building completely surrounded by a much taller and still old but not as old building. Forgive me if I don’t know what the kids are into these days but I mean, that’s pretty cool! As with so many anomalies like this one the question raised is why did this lot survive? The answer, by the way, is pretty much always that somebody didn’t want to sell. But why didn’t they want to sell? Didn’t they know that home is just a fungible asset? You know, that there’s no heaven, principles are thin straw with which to make a bed, and you’ve got to take everything that you can get in this one world? I guess not everybody used to know that. Or I don’t know, maybe they were rich already and they didn’t care.
The little building goes back to around 1875, though it wasn’t 6 stories at the time, and in fact according to some sources it was originally a carriage house, presumably serving one of the townhouses that then made up most of 57th Street (a few of which still survive just down the street). The larger building went up in the early 1920s as the Allerton Hotel for Women (finished in 1923), a residential hotel specializing, as the name implies, in providing housing for the “professional” class of women. Since the hotel hadn’t been able to purchase the corner lot before construction they simply planned to build around it. About midway through construction it seems they did gain possession of the property, through a 21 year lease that gave them the right to tear down the building and erect something new, with the stipulation however that whatever went up had to include its own entrance, stairs and heating system. I guess they decided it made sense financially to just keep the small building instead, though it was remodeled, with the top 2 floors added. Slightly less explicable is the fact that they didn’t line up the floors of the remodeled building with the hotel. Maybe they didn’t expect to keep it long – apparently the corner building remained separately owned until 1960. As recently as 10 years ago it was still only connected to the hotel on the first and second floors.
The “they” who didn’t line up the floors by the way was architect Arthur Loomis Harmon, whose most famous building to his (partial) credit is probably the Empire State Building – designed by the firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon and completed in an amazing 15 months (the 17 story Allerton Hotel – less than 1/5 of the size – seemingly took longer). Harmon also designed 740 Park Avenue, which today houses one of the highest, if not the highest, concentration of billionaires in the United States. I probably wouldn’t want to live there. I probably wouldn’t really want to live in the little house on the corner either, but I would want to spend a night at least. Right on that 6th floor corner that juts out over the busy busy intersection like a ship’s prow. It gets to something that always kind of blows my mind about space: I guess namely the fact that it can vary so much in use and hence in value. An apartment in a building in a certain spot (like 740 Park Ave. say) can be “worth” an astronomical amount; an apartment less than a mile up the road can be worth very little. Okay fine, we all get that I guess but it’s still wild to think that a wall can demarcate a space – making it private instead of public – and everything that goes with that. Anyone can stand on the corner of 57th and Lexington Ave; not too many people can be on the 6th floor by the corner windows, in their pajamas, watching TV.