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Streetscapes/Central Park West Between 105th and 106th Streets; In the 1880's, the Nation's First Cancer Hospital

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Published: December 28, 2003

THE 1887-90 New York Cancer Hospital on Central Park West between 105th and 106th Streets has sat unused for three decades. But a 26-story condominium tower being completed at the rear of the property has given new life to the landmark structure, which is itself being renovated as part of the project into large and expensive condominiums.

In the summer of 1884, former President Ulysses S. Grant developed throat cancer. He lived in a brownstone at 3 East 66th Street, and his ensuing decline, and his death the next year, caught the attention of the nation. Although his cancer was inoperable, others were more fortunate, since the development of anesthesia in the mid-19th century had finally given doctors a surgical treatment for cancer.

In the year of Grant's diagnosis, John Jacob Astor, Thomas A. Emmet, Joseph W. Drexel and other prominent New Yorkers laid the cornerstone for the New York Cancer Hospital, the first hospital in the United States specifically for cancer treatment. Designed by Charles C. Haight and completed in 1887, the first portion of the hospital, designated solely for women, was at the southwest corner of 106th and Central Park West.

At the dedication, Grant's physician, Fordyce Barker, said that cancer was ''not due to misery, to poverty, or bad sanitary surroundings, or to ignorance or to bad habits, but a disease afflicting the cultured, the wealthy and the inhabitants of salubrious localities.''

In 1890 the hospital was expanded south, and in both sections Haight designed circular wards, about 40 feet in diameter, in part to facilitate better observation by a nurse at a central desk and in part because the design offered more space between the heads of the beds -- but mostly because corners were thought to harbor germs.

Ventilation was a key concern, so a duct ran up the centers of the wards to remove what The New York Tribune said were the ''intense odors'' caused by the disease.

Haight worked the round wards into the exterior architecture, which he executed in deep red brick and soft brown Belleville brownstone, with great conical towers irregularly placed on the three fronts.

The big, broad towers gave the hospital the character of a French chateau, like the one at Chambord in the Loire Valley, and made it one of the most important pieces of institutional architecture in New York. The Tribune said it ''would much more readily be taken for an art museum than for a hospital.''

In an 1899 issue of The Architectural Record, the critic Montgomery Schuyler criticized the asymmetry of the Central Park West front and the ''degenerate English Gothic'' detail, despite the design's superficially French character. But he concluded that the hospital was ''an eminently successful work.''

THE hospital was still new in 1891 when a contractor, blasting for a new entrance to Central Park across the street, miscalculated and broke nearly every window in the building. Great rocks were propelled through the roofs and narrowly missed patients and staff, but no one was injured.

The 1915 census recorded 48 patients, including James Jordan, 47, a farmer from Windham, Ohio, and William Goggin, 54, a coffee roaster from Brooklyn. Most were middle-aged, but the patients also included Florence Moriarty, 5, who lived just a few blocks south at 14 West 93rd, and Katharine Wilkerson and Ruth Millage, both 13 and from upstate Barton, N.Y. The 1920 census showed that Ruth Millage had returned to Barton and was a teacher, living with her parents and three brothers; Katharine Wilkerson could not be traced.

The 20th century brought new techniques in cancer treatment, including radiation. In 1921, Marie Curie visited what had been renamed the General Memorial Hospital to see the steel vault where the hospital kept its four grams of radium -- at the time the largest accumulation in the world, according to The New York Times.

Dr. Edward H. Rogers, who was escorting her, assured The Times that ''there is no case on record of anyone being injured in health by radium.'' He denied that Curie had been harmed by the radioactive material, saying she had been ill recently only from anemia. In this period the hazards of radium were beginning to emerge, sparking defensive claims by its proponents. She died in 1934 because of radium poisoning.

Correction: February 1, 2004, Sunday The Streetscapes column on Dec. 28, about the building on Central Park West between 105th and 106th Streets, built as the New York Cancer Hospital, misstated the name it used at the time of a visit by Marie Curie in 1921. It was Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases; it changed its name in 1916 from General Memorial Hospital. The article also misstated the year in which the hospital relocated to 444 East 68th Street, where it is now part of Memorial Sloan-Kettering. That was 1939; the building was still under construction in 1938. A letter received by the writer from a reader last week pointed out the errors.