Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Bizarre Tale of the Medical Arts Building - No. 57 W 57th St

photo by Alice Lum
In 1928 West 57th Street was no longer the mish-mash of small brick buildings and undeveloped lots it had been a generation earlier.  Midtown was booming and 57th Street had earned a reputation as an arts center with Carnegie Hall, the Architectural League, the Fine Arts Society and the Rodin Studios building, among others, lining the thoroughfare.

The fine arts would meet the medical arts that year when Alain E. White’s Medical Arts Building, also known as the Professional Centre Building, was completed at No. 57 West 57th Street.  Designed by the architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore, the 18-story structure was specifically intended for physicians, dentists and related medical professionals. 
Above a Greek-style "temple" an enormous shield displays a caduceus, the Greek symbol of medicine - photo by Alice Lum
Immediately private doctors—some with their own mini-hospitals and sanitariums—and medical institutions moved in.  The Medical Arts Sanitarium opened on the entire 14th Floor on November 21, 1928 run by Dr. George E Browning (the facility was sometimes referred to as “Dr. Browning’s Sanitarium).   Marketing itself as “Luxury at Moderate Cost,” no room cost more than $10 per day.  “The institution is open to all physicians, where they may treat their own medical and surgical cases,” reported The New York Times.   The article added “All rooms are equipped with radios.”

Shortly after opening, the Medical Arts Sanitarium was the scene of tragedy.  27-year old Esther Glasser was admitted when she fell into deep depression when her hopes of becoming a teacher were dashed after she suffered a nervous breakdown (due to, it was felt, over-study).

On February 3, 1929 she told her nurse that she felt ill.  When the nurse left the room to go for medicine she jumped from her bed and headed toward the open window.  Her sister, Leah, grabbed her arm, but she broke free.   A taxi driver, Martin Newman, saw Esther’s body hit the pavement fourteen floors below the window.

But more drama was unfolding above the Sanitarium level.  Upon the completion of the structure Department of Buildings records documented “two housekeeping apartments” on the 17th and 18th floors.  The two luxurious penthouses in a building of medical offices and hospital rooms would be the scene of incredible drama.

Albert Champion had been a professional bicycle racer but he acquired a staggering fortune when he invented the spark plug.   On a business trip to New York the aging and married Champion ran into the much younger Edna Crawford—a girl who came to the big city looking for a wealthy man.

Before long Champion persuaded his wife to agree to a divorce; giving her $1 million to sweeten the deal.  He married Edna, but the autumn-spring romance quickly soured.  Intensely jealous, he lavished his new wife with clothing and jewels; but refused to provide her own spending money.

While the pair was in Paris, Edna met the dashing Charles Brazelle and started an affair.   Ironically, Brazelle was a fortune hunter just as Edna had been.  Champion learned of the affair and threatened to leave Edna penniless.  When he found the lovers together at the Crillon Bar, a violent confrontation ensued during which Brazelle punched the older man.  A few hours later he was found dead in his hotel room.

Edna and Charles persuaded authorities that Champion had died of a “weak heart” and the investigation went no further.

Edna, now $12 million richer, returned to New York with the still-married Brazelle in tow.  He expressed his wish to live in a glitzy modern apartment and when they found the penthouse of the Medical Arts Building he fell in love.  But the apartments were not for rent—so Edna purchased the entire building for $1.3 million in cash.

Decorators and architects were hired to renovate the two apartments, including a secret stairway to connect them.  Edna took the upper apartment, Charles the lower.  The terraces were landscaped with exotic plants, and the interiors were overdone with gold and silver walls, fountains under “artificial moonlight,” and live monkeys and peacocks roaming free.   Edna’s carved bed featured a canopy of gold cloth made from $30,000 worth of Russian clerical vestments.
High above 57th Street were the lavish apartments of Edna Champion and Charles Brazelle -- photo by Alice Lum
In one room Edna commissioned a 40-foot mural depicting a Venetian carnival.  The central figures were she and Charles, with Edna stark naked other than a pair of high heels and a mask.  Elsewhere antique European tapestries, custom floors, marble mantels and stained glass windows were installed.

The remodeling of the apartments would take years.  In the meantime “Charlie” Brazelle installed a brokerage office on the second floor to handle his accounts and collect the building rents; and he opened a nightclub in the basement of the building in 1934.  Based on a club in Paris it even took the same name, the Boeuf sur le Toit.  The opening was held on December 13 that year with a benefit dinner and show for the Social Service Department of the Roosevelt Hospital and the Post Contagion Unit of the Speedwell Society.   The New York Times headline read “New Club’s Opening to Attract Society, Many Dinners Will be Given at Tomorrow’s Celebration in the Boeuf Sur Le Toit.”

Things weren’t going so happily upstairs, however.  Like Edna’s marriage to Albert Champion, this relationship had taken a dark turn.   Charlie kept Edna a prisoner in her apartment and hired French servants who reported her movements to him.  The pair had repeated drunken fights and in one such incident he threw a telephone and struck her.  When Edna’s relatives discovered what was going on they had him ejected from the building and hired bodyguards to protect her.

But Charlie had keys to all the medical offices and would sometimes hide for days in the building, moving from one suite to another.  Finally, on the same night she died from drugs and alcohol (and a telephone injury), Charlie made his final attempt to get to her.   The bodyguards caught him and he was flung from her bedroom window onto the terrace below.  He died not long afterward and it would be ten days before his body was identified in the morgue by a brother.

The bizarre apartments high above 57th Street sat unoccupied for some time.   Carlton Alsop was a radio and film producer who was close friends with celebrities like Judy Garland.  Just married, he rented the Champion apartment for himself and his bride, a relative of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.   He was drawn, too, to the terraces which would provide outdoor space for his four Great Danes.

The two top floors were redecorated into a stylish, sleek home.  The gaudy, overblown d├ęcor was ripped out—all except for, oddly enough, the 40-foot mural with the nude Edna Champion.  But the atmosphere was strained.

The dogs whined and stared at windows or walls during the night and Mrs. Alsop exhibited strange behavior.    Both of the newlyweds reported hearing high-heeled footsteps in the night and the sounds of arguing.  Within a year an unnerved Mrs. Alsop packed her bags and moved out.

Alsop threw cocktail parties to cheer himself up after his short marriage failed.  According to Danton Walker in his “Spooks Deluxe” “At one of these a guest went upstairs to visit the bathroom and returned, white and shaking, unable to explain what had come over him.  On another occasion, a woman guest—an English-woman with a high-sounding title—vowed that someone had followed her down the stairs.  When all present denied any complicity, she indignantly stated that she ‘disliked practical jokes.’”

The sound of footsteps eventually drove Alsop nearly mad and he ended up in the hospital below his penthouse.   After his treatment and release, he sublet the penthouse “at no matter what financial loss.”

While the bizarre stories played out in the penthouse apartments, the medical offices continued on downstairs.  In April 1930 the 57 West Fifty-seventh Street Sanitarium opened on four floors “devoted to inexpensive rooms” for middle-class patients, as reported in The New York Times.
A gilded frieze includes bas reliefs of historic physicians -- photo by Alice Lum

“No city in the world provides better than New York for the rich and the poor classes, but the middle class has been absolutely neglected,” said Dr. Max S. Rhode, a director.
The impressive two-story Art Deco entrance survives -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1938 the nightclub below ground became La Conga, called by The Times “a new Cuban club.”   The New Yorker magazine said “If your soulful moods involve clasping your loved one in your arms and swaying to rumba music, La Conga at 57 West Fifty-seventh Street has the atmosphere.”

Later the club would become Dario’s La Martinique and it was here that Danny Kaye made his New York debut (for $250 a week for a one-week booking).   

Today there are still some medical offices in the building, but the private sanitariums and hospitals are long gone.   The former penthouse apartments became home to an art gallery, fordProject, in 2011.  While art and sculpture now fills the rooms were two lovers died; the address still holds special meaning to those addicted to ghost stories.

photo by Alice Lum
 many thanks to reader Holly for requesting this post

4 comments:

  1. Really great story. Thank you.

    If you don't know about it, I highly recommend the website fultonhistory.com, one of the best sources for New York newspaper archives on the web. If you haven't done so, check out an article in the Mount Vernon Argus, Thursday, April 25th, 1935, for an article on the lawsuit brought by the cad Brazelle against Mrs. Champion's relatives alleging that they had "mulcted" him out of his rightful share of her fortune as her "common law husband". There are photos of Edna, Albert and Brazelle- repeat with Adolph Hitler mustache- as well.

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  2. astounding building and story. This gem was omitted from the Warren and Wetmore collections book.

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