Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Charles B. Towns Hospital - 292-293 Central Park West

Central Park West had already seen the rise of multi-family buildings for years when developers Judson S. Todd and Samuel W. B. Smith engaged the architectural firm of Neville & Bagge to design two more in the spring of 1895.  Their plans, filed in April, called for two "five-story brick, stone and terra cotta single apartment houses."  Each would be 25 feet wide and would have "all improvements," including "steam heat, probably electric wiring, sanitary open plumbing work, radiators, gas and steam fitting, hardwood trim, pine, concrete and marble flooring, dumb-waiters, fire escapes, skylights, electric bells and speaking tubes, bath and laundry fittings."  The project was anticipated to cost $70,000--or just over $2 million today.

The mirror-image structures were completed late in 1896.  Five floors of beige Roman brick were trimmed in limestone and terra cotta detailing.  The entrances, above short stoops, were flanked by marble Ionic columns and framed by intricately carved Renaissance Revial surrounds.  Fussy cartouches, influenced by the Beaux Arts movement, crowned the upper openings.  A stone balustrade ran above the shallow cornice.

Seen at mid-block in 1906, the buildings retained the rooftop balustrade.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
The inclusion of speaking tubes and electric bells in the eight-room suites was necessary for the well-to-do tenants to summon their staff.  For years advertisements seeking chambermaids and laundresses, for instance, were placed by residents.  Rent for an apartment in 1903 was $1,300 per year, or a little more than $3,0oo a month today.

As expected, both buildings filled with white collar professionals.  Among the first residents of No. 293 was Wall Street broker William H. Ellis, who had just arrived from Texas.  The New York Press later said "Prospering here as he had in Texas, he furnished beautifully an apartment in No. 293 Central Park West."  The newspaper added that he "lived in luxury."

But Ellis was dogged with unfortunate acquaintances that resulted in court appearances; and those actions raised questions about the man's race.  His first problems resulted from a friendship with with Fayne Strahan Moore and her husband.  He was dragged into "unenviable notoriety," as worded by The New York Press, in 1898 when the couple was charged with "victimizing Martin Mahon, proprietor of the New Amsterdam Hotel."  The newspaper noted "At the trial the District Attorney spoke of Ellis several times as having negro blood."

Additional trouble came on July 25, 1901 when Frances T. Sauer charged him with assault.  She claimed that she answered his advertisement for a stenographer and was assaulted.  His employer, R. G. Dun & Co., seems to have wanted to preclude the resurrection of the race question, telling reporters "he is either a Cuban or a Mexican."  Sauer later dropped all charges, but Ellis continued to suffer racial bias.

Early in September 1903 he married Maude Sheymond and immediately laid plans to leave New York.  On September 6 The New York Press reported "Accompanied by his bride of a few days, William Henry Ellis, the broker, known as 'The Moor of Wall Street,' sailed on the Luciana yesterday on a remarkable mission to Abyssinia."  The article explained "It is the purpose of the millionaire financier to establish an Abyssinian bank."  The newspaper headline smacked of early 20th century racism.  "Ellis, 'The Moor,' Off To Abyssinia / Broker Purposes to Revive Old Glories of Ethiopia / Haven For Negroes of World."

In 1904 Pierre D. Dumont purchased both structures.  But he soon had a problem.  Samuel Green purchased the plot behind the buildings where intended to erect another apartment building.  But to do so he needed one more narrow strip of land, which the owner refused to sell.  In retaliation, Green erected what newspapers called the "Spite Stable"--a noisy, odorous livery stable, completed in March 1907.  The Sun remarked "Before that the street had been restricted to private dwellings and high class apartment houses and flats."

Dumont now had a problem.  His rear-facing apartments looked over the stable and its unattractive rear yard, including a manure pit.  Both he and C. H. Darrow, Jr., who owned Nos. 294-295 Central Park West, erected high steel fences.  But the action did not help.  The New York Press explained "they found the barrier was no help in leasing the apartments."

And so on January 1, 1908 the newspaper ran the headline "Spite Fence War Brings Changes in Apartments."  The article reported that Dumont had hired architect Clarence True to convert his buildings to offices.  The Record & Guide noted they would necessitate "extensive alterations."

It may have been pressure from the neighboring property owners that scuttled that plan.  Instead, True's alterations resulted in a private sanitarium.  

Alice M. Perrigo had been matron at the Nassau Hospital.  Now she opened Miss Perrigo's Hospital in the combined buildings.  Private hospitals were popular among wealthy citizens who were too ill to be treated at home, but wanted to avoid the attention of a public facility.  Unfortunately, because of that privacy, Alice Perrigo's sanitarium appeared in print almost exclusively when someone died.

Such was the case on June 11, 1910 when The Evening Telegram reported "It was learned late this afternoon that Mrs. Joseph Sollen, daughter of Mr G. Howland Leavitt, of Bayside, L.I. and reputed heiress to more than $1,00,000 who eloped last January with her father's chauffeur, later to leave him, died at Perrigo's Sanitarium, No. 293 Central Park West."

The following year a wealthy Massachusetts woman, Mrs. J. P. Denison, was committed here "for a nervous trouble," according to her doctor, Frederick Emil Neef.  He visited her on Sunday afternoon, February 19 and left around 5:00, saying that she was "in a pleasant fame of mind."

Mrs. Denison went to the dining room a few minutes later, but when she "was about half through with her meal," reported The New York Times, "she suddenly left the table and went to her room."  She walked directly to the window and threw herself out.  The police did not hear of the incident until around 10:00 that night when the coroner's report was filed.

Captain Zimmerman sent an officer to investigate, but he was barred at the hospital's door.  Zimmerman sent him back, ordering him to stay until he had information.  "The policeman stood in the storm until late in the afternoon, making frequent attempts to locate Miss Perrigo.  At every attempt he was told Miss Perrigo would return later in the day."   When one officer went off duty, another would take his place.  The Times said "During the afternoon the women nurses of the institution and the telephone operator appeared at the windows and jeered the half-frozen bluecoat."

The guaranteed privacy of Miss Perrigo's Hospital trumped respect for law enforcement, it seems.  A spokesman said it was simply none of the police department's business.  "The police were not notified, I suppose, because the hospital people considered that the cast properly belonged to the Coroner."

The patients in Miss Perrigo's Hospital were seemingly all either very wealthy or very high-profile, like Emma Dinges Burrian, wife of Metropolitan Opera star tenor Karl Burrian was brought here with "tuberculosis of the brain," according to The New York Press.  She died here on February 1, 1913 while her husband was performing Tristan & Isolde in Boston.  And the following year, on June 10, 1914, 40-year old William Hammerstein, son of Oscar Hammerstein, died in the hospital.

At the time of Hammerstein's death, Charles B. Towns had operated his private sanitarium nearby at No 110 West 82nd Street for a year.  Founded in 1901, it foreshadowed the rehabilitation clinics of today--accepting only alcoholics and drug addicts.   Widely supported by esteemed physicians (one of Towns's earliest champions was Dr. Alexander Lambert, the personal physician Theodore Roosevelt), Towns's therapy would raise medical eyebrows today.  It consisted of a mixture of belladonna, or "deadly nightshade," prickly ash and henbane, sometimes called "stinking nightshade."  Towns was, incidentally, not a trained doctor.

On May 30, 1914 The Sun reported that Miss Perrigo's Private Hospital had been sold.  "The hospital will continue to occupy the premises," the article noted.  That sentence should have read "A hospital will occupy the premises."

The Charles B. Towns Hospital moved in.  Among the earliest patients was H. Bremmer Stedman, described by The Farmer on May 24, 1915 as "son of the senior partner of Stedman & Redfeld, bankers and brokers, of Hartford, Ct.   He had been admitted a month earlier for the treatment of alcoholism and the nurse assigned to him was Blanche Dorothy Cromwell.  Blanche was a part-timer because, as one staff member explained, "she was too pretty for us to employ regularly, although a good nurse."  

The Farmer went on to describe Stedman as a self-promoter, saying he "talked much of the wealth of himself, and his family; he spoke of his father's eminent position in the financial world of Hartford, and he entertained Miss Cromwell and others with stories of the 'good times' he had had with his 'dear friends, Vincent Astor, Herman Oelrichs' and other men of wealth and fashion."  When the Lusitania sank, he "grew excited" and asked the staff if he could be permitted to make a phone call.  He felt it would be best, he said, if he broke the news of his friend Alfred Vanderbilt's death to Mrs. Vanderbilt.

Despite the fact that it was later learned that no one at the Vanderbilt residence had ever heard of Stedman, Blanche Cromwell overlooked the warning signs.  On May 23, shortly after his release from the hospital, the couple married.

Five years later Stedman was arraigned on charges of passing phony checks--one of them alone in the amount of $250,000, about $6.45 million today.

Shortly after the Charles B. Towns Hospital opened in its Central Park West location Henry Ford took a forward-thinking approach to substance abuse in his factory force.  Having heard of Towns's work, he was considering the establishment of "a ward for alcoholics and drug victims in the factory he is building at Detroit," explained the New York Tribune.  

On June 25 the newspaper reported that the automaker, as sort of a test run, was "sending five drug addicts from Detroit for a ten days' treatment at the Charles B. Towns Sanatorium in this city, with three experts to guard them on the trip and observe results."  Three of the men were alcoholics and two were opium addicts.

Towns pronounced them cured on July 7.  The New York Tribune said the men, "smiling from ear to ear, hurried down the steps of the Charles B. Towns Sanatorium, 293 Central Park West, yesterday," announced the Tribune.  "'Gee!' one was heard to say as the car started.  'I'm going to hand my wife a surprise, all right.  She said I could never get rid of the craving for drugs."

Despite his questionable tactics, Towns was among the earliest to recognize that substance abuse was a disease.  He lobbied tirelessly to outlaw the sale of hypodermic needles unless prescribed, to pass laws against driving while impaired, and for drug and alcohol education at a time when the subjects were politely avoided.

The New York Times, February 9, 1913 (copyright expired)

Towns's belladonna cure, which produced wild hallucinations, may have been responsible for several suicides.  On January 5, 1915 58-year old Henry Corby, employed by a "prominent Wall Street concern, according to The New York Press, threw himself out his window.  He had been addicted for 35 years.

On March 11 that same year, Walter A. Robinson was brought in for alcoholism.  Two weeks later he dodged a nurse Elizabeth Sheridan and went into a bathroom without supervision.  She alerted Dr Howard Cooper who rushed in to find Robinson halfway out the window.  The doctor grabbed his bathrobe, but that was the only thing he saved.  Robinson fell three floors to his death.

In November 1916 "private" plans were filed under Charles Towns's name for alterations to the hospital.  It was most likely at this time that the sixth floor solarium was added.

The new sixth floor was mostly glass, allowing for sunlight, breezes and stunning park views.  The Modern Hospital, January 1918 (copyright expired)
The solarium was used for physical training, physical therapy and exercise.  A 1918 advertisement touted "The Hospital has now secured the services of a physical director of character and ability, such as it has long been looking for...The Hospital has for its physical laboratories both its own roof garden Solarium, available every day in the year, and the whole area of Central Park for walking, riding, and driving, accessible from the Hospital's very door."  The well-heeled patients were not confined to their wards.  "Golf courses and the open country are within half an hour's convenient ride."

Towns and his family lived in a nine-room apartment in the building.  Son Edward B. Towns joined the Army during World War I.  His name appeared in the New-York Tribune on December 20, 1918 as among the severely wounded in battle.  He would go on to achieve the rank of colonel.

Perhaps the hospital's most memorable patient was William Griffith Wilson, later best known as Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  He was admitted four times between 1933 and 1934, each time paying $350 for the five-day treatment (around $6,780 today) and three times relapsing.   

When he arrived the fourth time, drunk, he was sedated with chloral hydrate and paraldehyde.  Wilson had what he called a "spiritual awakening."  After crying out "I'll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let him show himself!" he reported seeing a "blinding light" and experiencing ecstatic freedom and peace.  Wilson never had another drink for the rest of his life.

Two less-than-respectable patients of the hospital were heroin addicts "Cokey Flo" Brown (who was also a former prostitute), and Mildred Harris.  The women gave false names upon their admittance on February 25, 1937.  A year earlier their true names had both appeared in headlines when their testimonies had helped put Lucky Luciano behind bars.

"Cokey Flo" Brown - photo via AP Images

It was revealed later that Thomas E. Dewey had convinced the women to turn against Luciano by promising, and coming through with, a profitable motion picture and magazine deal.

Charles B. Towns died on February 20, 1947.  In reporting his death The Daily Argus of Mount Vernon, New York, recalled that he was "one of the first men to insist that drug addicts and alcoholics were sick and not depraved."  By the time of Towns's death, according to the newspaper, the hospital and Alcoholics Anonymous were working hand-in-hand.

A tax photo around 1940 shows potted plants on either side of the entrances and a stone balustrade protecting the areaways.  photo via the NYC Department of Taxation and Information Services.

The 50-patient Charles B. Towns Hospital forged on under the supervision of Edward Towns.  He and his wife, Marian, still lived in the large apartment here.  It was the scene of a horrifying incident in 1961.  That year their 39-year-old daughter, Caroline, left her husband Thomas Lewis, a 43-year old kitchen equipment salesman.  She and her two daughters temporarily moved in with them.

A few months later, on October 17, Lewis came to the apartment to see his daughters.  At around 6:00 he asked 8-year-old Linda to sent her mother into the living room.  A violent argument broke out that alarmed Marian Towns.  Linda told detectives later "The noise frightened grandma.  She ran into the room.  Then there were a lot of shots."

Police were notified by the hospital's switchboard operator who exclaimed "There's a man on the fifth floor killing people."  Lewis fired a total of 15 shots--emptying one clip then reloading a second.

The crazed man turned his .45 automatic on the responding officers when they burst into the apartment.  He was killed in the gun battle.  Marion Towns was dead and Caroline was wounded in the face.

Five years after the tragedy the building was converted to apartments.  The stoop of No. 292 was removed and the entrance adapted as a window.  The hospital solarium was unsympathetically remodeled into a penthouse containing two apartments.  The lower floors each held six.  In 1974 a one-bedroom here rented for $240 per month, and a three-bedroom for $275.

Over the next decades organizations leased space in the building.  The Learning Annex was here in the early 1980's; The Black Psychology Institute of The New York Association of Black Psychologists, Inc. was here by 1984, staying at least through 1988; and the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association had its offices here in 1996.

The sadly disfigured structure with its more than amazing history is easily overlooked among Central Park West's soaring apartment buildings.  The tales that played out within it, however, would fill a book.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Great history! Very entertaining post. Thank you for the charming photo of "Cokey Flo" Brown.