An Empty Lot Where a Home Once Stood
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Almost every day of my life, from the age of 5 to 18, I passed by 34 E. 62nd Street on my way to the Browning School for Boys, three doors down. Now the building at 34 E. 62nd no longer exists, having been reduced to rubble last week by an emotionally disturbed doctor.
The austerely elegant townhouse was, at nearly 100 years old, the most ancient structure on its beautiful block. No matter how obvious the point may seem, it is worth reflecting upon the mysterium that lingers around the edges of reality and achieves a special poignancy with buildings, the most imposing and solid objects in the manmade world.
The architect who designed 34 E. 62nd Street a century ago surely conceived it, however vaguely, as a temple of fashion and elegant domesticity. It was undoubtedly meant as a house of joy, to invoke the pre-Raphaelite mood that still counted for something in the early years of the last century. Every architect in the world designs his buildings in the vague hope that they will last until sun and earth are reunited in some final cataclysm. But as humans, we know; “This too shall pass.” As a result, architects — and especially the architects of New York — understand that in this most fluid of urban centers, their creations are apt to be temporary.
And yet, no one could have imagined the fiery fate that lay waiting for 34 E. 62nd Street. None of the neighbors and surely none of the students or faculty of the Browning School, as we passed it each morning and each evening, scarcely even deigned to notice this graceful house among other graceful houses. And so it remained there, just another building until, to quote Hardy’s great poem, “the Spinner of the Years/ Said ‘Now!’ And each one hears, / And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.”
That sense of mystery is ever present, but like a will-o’-the-wisp, it seems to vanish from view if you focus on it too closely. And so, courting banality, one cannot help but remark that there was also something essentially New York about the whole event and its relevance to residential real estate, which is surely as far from otherworldliness as you can get.
Consider that the doctor who lived in the house and who practiced in it for 20 years appears to have resorted to desperate measures because he was about to lose the building in a divorce settlement. Consider, as well, that the value of the property has just skyrocketed. For although 34 E. 62nd Street was built at a time when the average New Yorker’s highest aspiration was to own a house, now that ambition has shifted to apartments. As a result, town houses are a hard sell and are often reborn as apartment buildings, rising 10 or so stories over a narrow plot.That is what is happening now at 985 Park Avenue, which stands tall on a lot once occupied by the single-story Portraits Inc. — and this is what will doubtless happen when a new structure rises at 34 E. 62. When it does, children will grow up there, old people will pass on, and the unfathomable mysteries of life will play themselves out yet again.
Mortality has come, sooner than anyone could have predicted, to the elegant, ivory-colored emporium of Asprey, on the southeast corner of the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. Fashionable boutiques come and go as quickly as the fashions they enshrine. But the closing of Asprey is more consequential than most others: It was designed, very beautifully, by Sir Norman Foster. Though Mr. Foster has just completed the iconic Hearst Tower on the corner of 57th Street and Eighth Avenue, and though he is slated to design a skyscraper at ground zero, it is sad to witness the vanishing of this elegant corner of Midtown. And it goes away only a year and a half after it came into existence. What made it especially remarkable was its daring intervention in the black angularity of Der Scut’s Trump Tower. Mr. Foster replaced the window spandrels with bays the color of burnished bone that curved gently inward as they met the street line. Truth be told, the result never co-existed famously with the rest of the building, but it is, or was, quite charming in itself.
Let us end this somewhat lugubrious column on a happier note, with the stirrings of rebirth. Two weeks ago, a new park was opened on West Street, stretching to Battery Place from West Thames Street. West Street is a polite way of saying Route 9A, which originates in Lower Manhattan, before making its way up the Hudson to Peekskill. The new parkland that has just been inaugurated, officially known as West Street Promenade South, is one more link (and the southernmost) in the great Hudson River Park system that will someday stretch all the way up to 72nd Street on the far West Side. Built over a period of 18 months, this threeblock boulevard contains more than 200 trees and 7,000 shrubs. Unlike other, more northern installments of the Hudson River Park, however, this initial stretch feels decidedly less bucolic, at least for the moment. Little effort has been made to convince the pedestrian that he is doing anything other than walking along the edge of the West Side Highway. Let us hope that when the trees grow taller and the park is completed, this granite paved promenade will be an essential ornament of Lower Manhattan.