Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Extreme Preservationism: The Northern Dispensary

The West Village building that suffers from neglectitis

By David Crohn

(from Our Town Downtown, 2006)

For those who fear that downtown Manhattan is quickly festering with hypermodern projections of glass and steel at the expense of everything old and grand, consider the Northern Dispensary in the West Village.

Consider this triangle on Waverly Place, at a spot where that winding way abuts with Christopher Street. The Dispensary has not been remodeled, refurbished or re-anything-ed since it was built in 1831. It has been unoccupied for about 15 years, its curious inertia and shadowy history resulting from the convergence of two factors: the charitable intentions of its builder on one hand and the eccentric detachment of its current generation of owners on the other. Inside, unused dental equipment collects dust.

“It’s one of the more vexing sites in the neighborhood,” Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation Executive Director Andrew Berman said of the Dispensary, the only building in Manhattan with one side touching two streets (Christopher and Grove) and two sides touching one (the fickle Waverly Place). “People in the area have called me. They’re frustrated about seeing that wonderful building just sitting there and possibly deteriorating.”

The city handed the site over to the titular Northern Dispensary organization (Chelsea and the West Village were then Manhattan’s uptown) when the building was built, under the stipulation that it be used only as a clinic for the poor, for people who couldn’t afford to stay in hospital. And that’s how it was operated, serving tens of thousands of the area’s sick—up until 1920, when outpatient service began to supplant walk-ins and overnighters.

Bigger and better hospitals opened around town as the city expanded, and over the years the Dispensary became solely a dental clinic. Its decline into disuse began in 1986 when the now-defunct organization that ran it refused to treat patients with AIDS. It closed in 1989 and a year later was bought by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, who had hoped to open a 15-room SRO for homeless people with AIDS. The local community board at the time endorsed the idea, but a group of neighbors and businesses opposed it. In 1998 the Diocese finally sold the Dispensary to enigmatic real estate investor William Gottlieb.

That’s where the history stops.

Unlike most investors, who buy and swiftly flip, Gottlieb liked to do absolutely nothing with his properties. One historic building in Manhattan burned down on his watch. He died in 1999, and it appears as though the ancestors who control his estate also inherited his unexplained resistance to do much of anything at all with the 75 or so properties they own around Greenwich Village—including nearly a fifth of the Meatpacking District. (Every blue moon or so, the Gottlieb estate-owned Keller Hotel, at West and Barrow Streets, will undergo a spasm of renovation.)

Hoping to see something done with the Dispensary that would be “respectful of the building’s history and beauty,” Berman and other preservationists have tried reaching out to the estate’s current lead agents, Mollie and Neal Bender, who are Gottlieb’s niece and nephew. “They never respond,” said Berman. “It’s unfortunate that there’s this state of limbo presiding over such a beautiful building.”

And even if they did, breathing life into the structure would be further impeded by that deed requiring it to be used to dispense medical help for the needy. It’s a worthy goal, but a prickly dilemma: nowhere in that contract does it say that the Dispensary has to be used for anything at all.

Renting and Buying
Not in this building. There are plenty of places on Waverly, with rents starting at about $2,000 for a studio. Grab a roommate, however, and you can probably find a convertible one-bedroom for $3,000, thus saving a few hundred on your monthly dues. When it comes to buying, the West Village has some of the priciest apartments in the city, but if you hunt around, you can probably find a decent one-bedroom for $400,000—and it might even overlook a lovely, neglected dispensary.

What Happened Here
Legend has it that Edgar Allen Poe was a patient here in 1837. Although the presence of this prominent convalescent does grant the place and the block a certain mystique, the author of “The Oblong Box” was a sickly fellow who moved around a lot (he lived a few doors down, at 137 Waverly Place, for a short time, and on West 3rd Street). So if a literary or medical historian were so inclined, he could probably dig up many places where Poe took a short-lasting cure. Broke and in the later stages of alcoholism, he was found in a Baltimore gutter wearing someone else’s clothes in 1849. He died a few days later.