“They’re doing interior demolition on the building at 57th Street and 9th Avenue,” my friend Amber told me last week, “and it smells like death.”
Indeed it does. Or perhaps it’s my febrile imagination that makes me think I can smell decay as far as a block from the rotted beauty known as the Windermere, an 1881 Queen Anne-style apartment house at 400 West 57th Street that once ranked among Manhattan’s most elegant and innovative residences (according to this 2002 report in the New York Times, it offered one of the city’s first building-wide telephone services). Today, however, after decades of litigation, tenant harassment, and neglect, the Windermere has become a shell of its former self – although much of the astounding brickwork on its facade remains.
For years the Windermere’s owner, a Japan-based company, provided virtually no maintenance, in the evident hope that the building would rot to the point where demolition (and subsequent redevelopment) would be the only option. Despite the company’s protest, the city stepped in and designated the Windermere an official landmark in 2005 – although the building continued its long slide into desuetude. Good news seemed to arrive this May, when the Times’ City Room reported that a new owner had taken control and was planning to restore the collapsing structure.
Now, though, I’m beginning to wonder what’s really going on. In the new photo below, the sky can be viewed through one of the upper windows – evidence that at least a portion of the roof is missing. As we know, leaving an old building open to the elements will hasten its deterioration rapidly (remember the Harlem Corn Exchange?).
I visited the Department of Buildings website to see what I could find out about the Windermere, and discovered an array of stop work orders and violations. In fact, three complaints have been issued since August alone. One, dated September 3, charges that the floor joists have been removed from the 2nd to the 6th floor. If true, this is extremely distressing – joists are supporting structures. I recall the Dwyer Warehouse floor collapse in my neighborhood in 2002, which killed a 53-year old constuction worker, Modesto Olivo. Let’s hope that necessary precautions are being taken, and that nothing similar would ever happen to the Windermere. That would be a tragedy far worse than the loss of a beautiful building.