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The Death and Life of a Great American Building

Not precisely about authors and the business of writing, but a lovely piece about an old building full of psychotherapists.

Who can resist that?

From The New York Review of Books:

I am one of the last tenants of the St. Denis, a 165-year-old building on the corner of Broadway and East 11th Street, just south of Union Square in New York City, that is in the process of being emptied and readied for gutting. It is quiet in my office, early morning before my psychotherapy patients arrive. My four large windows overlook a courtyard and the angled backsides of three buildings, their walls a geometric patchwork of brick. Pigeons purr on a sill. In the NYU dormitory across the way, a student has decorated her window with paper snowflakes. It is winter and I hope to see a real snowfall one more time before I go. The St. Denis is desolate. Only two dozen tenants are left. There used to be hundreds.

For decades, the St. Denis has been a haven for psychotherapists of every sort: classical Freudian analysts and new-age Zen psychologists, existential counselors and gender specialists, therapists who use art, dance, and neurofeedback. We’ve shared the building’s six floors (plus one semi-secret half-floor on the un-seventh) with other small businesses, mostly providers of wellness—Rolfers, Reiki healers, craniosacral balancers, Feldenkrais practitioners, acupuncturists, Pilates instructors, and at least one psychic who does past-life regressions.

“The building should be levitating with the amount of healing that goes on,” says psychologist Jessica Arenella. In her office on the second floor, she worries about what the loss of the building means for the changing city. “This building was a holdout. It’s not corporate. Tearing it down is part of the death of the Village. Everything’s become so capitalistic and market-driven. There used to be diners around here. Now it’s all just places to get an $8 juice.”

There also used to be more psychotherapists, clustered together in buildings on the streets around Union Square, but a seismic shift is taking place and the therapist buildings are getting squeezed. There was 88 University Place and its northern wing, 24 East 12th Street, both bought by a fashion designer in 2015 for $70 million, emptied, and installed with WeWork co-working spaces. There is 817 Broadway, sold in 2016 to Taconic Investment Partners, who’ve begun to reposition the property for the tech industry, wrapping it in a glossy banner that declares it “The address of innovation.” A colleague there tells me that floors of psychotherapists, put on month-to-month leases, are clearing out. In his words, “They are giving all the therapists and psychiatrists the boot.”

Put your ear to the ground and you’ll hear about therapists being pushed out of Union Square and nearby Greenwich Village, either by non-renewal of leases or skyrocketing rents. Affordable office space has become nearly impossible to find. Not long ago, the therapists of Manhattan stayed put for decades, secured to spaces where rents never spiked. Now we’re forced to move every few years, uprooting our patients, keeping our offices minimal, easy to pack, nomadic.

. . . .

In the summer of 2017, tenants discovered architectural renderings on the Internet proposing to replace the St. Denis with a seventeen-story glass tower sheathed in white glass, as sterile as an operating table. On their website, the CetraRuddy firm claimed that their design will create “an office environment that addresses mental and physical well-being.”

. . . .

Every old building in New York has its stories, but if the building is lucky, it acquires a personality, a complicated character that evolves over the years and embeds itself in the walls, right down to the bones. The St. Denis was lucky. From the outside, you wouldn’t know it. Walking up Broadway, you might not notice this plain box, blushing a shade of pink that could be called dusty rose. To come into contact with the character of the St. Denis, you have to go inside.

Originally a grand hotel, the St. Denis was completed in 1853. It was designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect who built Grace Church on the same land, a former cherry orchard owned by his uncle Henry Brevoort and bisected by Broadway when the avenue was dirt and wagon tracks. Renwick trimmed the hotel’s windows with decorative terracotta, a first in New York City, and topped the roof with crenellated cornices.

Abraham Lincoln is said to have slept here; and after his assassination, his casket paraded past the hotel. Then his widow stayed, traveling to New York incognito and in debt, desperate to sell off jewelry and clothing, including fur boas, a diamond ring, and a pair of opera cloaks. In parlor room 208, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the “speaking telephone” to New Yorkers for the first time. Sarah Bernhardt wrote her letters in the Ladies’ Writing Room. Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs here—and when he was struck by writer’s block, Mark Twain moved in to assist him. Buffalo Bill Cody and P.T. Barnum stayed, too. The Walt Whitman Fellowship met here, delivering lectures on topics such as: “Walt Whitman and Woman” and “Whitman and Physique.” When Susan B. Anthony spoke to the local women’s Suffrage Association at the hotel, “She began,” reported the Times, “by stating that she never had paid the income tax and she never would. If men wanted to put Susan B. in jail she would go.” These people, and many others, climbed the grand spiral staircase, its balustrade entwined with wrought-iron dragons, smoothing the mahogany railing with their hands, adding their footfalls to the indentations still in the marble steps today.

Several people died in the St. Denis Hotel, many were robbed, and some were driven crazy by bells. When Grace Church changed its bell-ringing system to an electrical apparatus in 1892, hotel resident and insomnia sufferer L.F. Monsell complained to the Times. “I wanted to get a slap at those confounded chimes across the way—they are a beastly nuisance,” he said. “Enough to drive one wild.”

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Books in General

2 Comments to “The Death and Life of a Great American Building”

  1. excerpt: “But this is not a commercial building,” she tells me. “It’s a community.” She doesn’t understand how the neighborhood could be called Midtown South. The St. Denis, she explains, is very different from the Midtown buildings where she has worked. “In Midtown the people are like robots. It’s commercial. Uptight. They didn’t know my name, nor even looked at me. The therapists were more high-end. The money bracket. I see a lot of pro-bono work in this building. Some people might be coming from shelters. But here everybody is welcome, from the nice Italian suits to the regular folks from Kmart.” Santos wells up, takes off her glasses to wipe her eyes, and says, “I miss the people. The friendliness. The intimacy.”

    It’s a pity that community will be lost. I wish there was a way to usher in new architecture for this new century, create a dazzling silicon alley, without losing community. That will take bigger brains than I have, but it sure would be nice.

  2. “In the summer of 2017, tenants discovered architectural renderings on the Internet proposing to replace the St. Denis with a seventeen-story glass tower sheathed in white glass, as sterile as an operating table.”

    Oh, woe is us. Beautiful life in Manhattan will never be the same. 🙁

    But, since I live in LA, I really couldn’t care less. 🙂

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