It is an unfortunate irony that neglected pre-war buildings slated for demolition often look better to us in their decrepit final years than do their modernist replacements when brand new.
The site at 301 West 46th Street is still in the demolition phase, so it’s really too early to say whether the corner of 46th and 10th was better served by the elegant 1910 five-story apartment house that once stood than by the 600-room Riu Plaza Hotel soon to rise there. Judging from the rendering on a board posted to the construction fence on 46th street, the new building doesn’t appear offensive, but it’s really too early to tell. In the rendering, it looks like there was an attempt to liven things up at the base of the building with a whimsical window pattern. It’s gratifying to see that the architect – or perhaps more importantly, the developer – may be taking some risks here, for better or worse.
None of this will be much consolation for those who measure the value of a city by the proportion of its old buildings that are still standing. But in mourning the loss of irreplaceable prewar buildings, we might take small consolation in the fact that the impending destruction of a building can bring its character and history to life for many who would otherwise have paid no attention to it.
This is certainly true for a building like 301 West 46th Street. Demolition plans prompted bloggers at Vanishing New York and Gotham Lost and Found to unearth interesting historical facts about the building. We learned for example that the basement of the building housed a speakeasy in the 1920’s with a Russian clientele and a rock club in the late 1960’s that hosted Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, among others.
Now, only the ruins of 301 West 46th remain, but these ruins are like an archaeological site – in exposing the interior of the building, they prompt an almost voyeuristic curiosity about what happened there. Owned by the famous Astor family until 1921, the building housed (four!) massage parlors in the 1970s and an adult shop from the 1980s until very recently.
What was apparently unknown by others who have blogged about the building, was that the basement – formerly the home of a speakeasy called the “Cave of the Fallen Angels” – was more recently the site of a particularly sordid crime that police discovered only a decade ago. In 2003, construction workers removing debris from the basement found skeletal remains of a woman buried inside a cement ‘coffin.’ Forensic work revealed that a woman less than 22 years old had been murdered and buried there as early as 1988, likely by someone who was intimately familiar with the building. The grisly crime was recounted on America’s Most Wanted; neither the victim nor the perpetrator were ever identified.
Let’s hope that demolition and excavation at the site don’t reveal any additional surprises.