You Used to Beat Me with our House Phone: The Haunting of 57 West 57th Street

Ah, New York. There’s so much history here, and so much madness. In the case of the penthouse at 57 west 57th street, that madness left an impression.

57 West 57th street began its life as a Medical Arts Building in the late 1920’s, and originally wasn’t supposed to lease apartments at all. Devoted mostly to private practitioners, one of the building’s most prominent features was an entire floor dedicated to Doctor Browning’s Sanitarium. Less than three months after said floor opened, 27-year-old Esther Glasser evaded the nurses and her sister to leap out the 14th-story window. A cab driver below witnessed her body explode against the sidewalk; the event likely didn’t get the building very good press. Still, things continued well enough until Edna Crawford arrived.

Born in Kansas City, Edna had moved to New York with the hope of finding a wealthy husband. Albert Champion, who had rapidly come into money after inventing the spark plug, seemed to fit the bill–never mind that he was already married and eleven years her senior. Albert took one look at beautiful Edna and saw no reason to argue. He divorced his long-suffering wife (she had once been his childhood sweetheart, and had lately sued him for “extreme cruelty,” citing his numerous affairs) and married Edna instead.

albert_champion
A photo of the unfortunate Albert, courtesy of the Agence de presse Meurisse at Wikimedia Commons

Any happiness in their marriage didn’t last. Albert was jealous and possessive; he lavished Edna with gifts but refused to give her her own spending money. On a trip to Paris, Edna found some relief in Charles Brazelle, who was as taken with Edna’s money as Edna had been with Albert’s. Albert discovered their affair and confronted them. He threatened to leave Edna penniless, and Charles punched him so hard that Albert died a few hours later, alone in his hotel room. Edna and Charles claimed he died of a weak heart. The police didn’t argue, and Edna left Paris $12 million richer from her late husband’s will.

Charles, who was technically still married; (no word on what his wife thought of all of this) accompanied Edna back to New York, and started pestering her immediately for a modern penthouse of their own. That’s when they stumbled upon the “housekeeping apartments” on the 17th and 18th floors of the 57th street Medical Arts Building. The apartments were not for rent, so Edna bought the whole building.

Edna and Charles renovated the 17th and 18th* floors into an apartment for each of them, with a secret staircase between the two. They decorated as opulently as possible: gold and silver walls, marble mantels, stained glass windows, fountains, exotic plants, etc. Edna took $30,000 worth of Russian clerical vestments and made them into a canopy for her bed, and then commissioned a 40-foot mural of her and Charles as central figures in a Venetian carnival, herself wearing nothing but a mask and high heels. Meanwhile, Charles started a club in the basement of the building and began to gleefully collect rent.

Shockingly, this union based on violence and greed didn’t last. Charles turned out to be even worse than Albert. He hired French staff to monitor Edna’s movements, attempting to confine her to her apartment. The couple had a lot of drunk fights, some of them violent. Worried for her safety, Edna’s family hired her some bodyguards. Charles countered by using his master key to sneak through the building’s offices, hunting Edna while avoiding confrontation. Sometimes he would disappear in the building for days at a time; no one could find him, but they could feel him watching.

At last there came the night when Charles attacked. Edna, drunk and on drugs, failed to fight him off, and he beat her to death with a telephone. Her bodyguards (who apparently weren’t competent enough to stop him from killing her) tossed Charles out the window, and he slammed onto the terrace below, dying not long after.

scene_carnival_tiepolo1750
An example of a Venetian carnival painting that Edna and Charles might have inserted themselves into. It’s titled Scene de carnaval, ou Le Menuet by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It took the building a few years to rent out the penthouse after that. Once they found someone, however, it quickly became apparent that it would be hard to keep the rooms occupied.

Carlton Aslop, a well-respected socialite (and friend of Judy Garland), was the first to finally move in, bringing his new wife and four Great Danes along with him. They redecorated, settled in, and tried to relax. This proved difficult, as the Danes began to suffer from nervous breakdowns, staring at odd spaces in the room or at the walls with their ears flat and their eyes wide. Both Carlton and his wife heard the clicking of high heels and muffled arguing when they should have been alone. Mrs. Aslop began to behave oddly, and within a year fled the building–and her husband–without a backward glance.

Depressed, Carlton tried to throw parties to cheer himself up, but the apartment frightened his guests as badly as it had his wife and pets. They would come back from using the bathroom upstairs white-faced and shaking, unable to articulate what they had seen. One was followed by something on the stairs–she demanded to know who was responsible for the practical joke, but no one at the party owned up to it. Carlton at last had his own nervous breakdown and committed himself to the sanitarium downstairs. Once he got out, he never came back to the apartment again.

In 2011, the company fordProject bought the space* and opened an art gallery there. The New York Times reported that their first exhibition was called “When the Fairytale Never Ends,” which the curator described as an “an artificial paradise” with a dark side. The reporter noted that the gallery did not really feel like a gallery, with the odd shapes of the walls obstructing sightlines and the video viewing room upstairs feeling rather “claustrophobic.”

From what I can tell, the gallery might have continued for some time after that, but it’s no longer clear if it still exists. The 57 West 57th street website makes it look like the floors are available to rent, so if you have a lot of money and and balls, you might be able to go up there and find out if the apartments are really haunted yourself. For the rest of us, there are a number of dental and dermatologist offices on the lower floors for a lower-budget, health-conscious supernatural tourism.

 

Would you be interested in living at 57 West 57th street? Even with a broker’s fee? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

*In researching this post, I found some conflicting reports on whether the apartments were on the 17th and 18th floors or the 18th and 19th. The New York Times seems to think it was the latter, but the Daytonian in Manhattan blog (which seems to have done marvelous research into it) claims it was the former. Either way, I’m not sure I’d want to hang out anywhere around that part of the building.

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Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Hell Gate

I’ve never slept well with open doors. As a child, I’d see the light flickering through the crack and imagine it was an otherworldly train, drifting through the dark to steal children who hadn’t properly fallen asleep. It would squeeze down the hall: a luminous blue fog shaped into a car, blank faces pressed against its windows, hands reaching from the gaps to pull any errant child aboard. I’d close my eyes and lay very still, light dancing behind my eyelids, and pray the conductor would pass over me.

I haven’t seen that train for years, but to find it again, I needn’t look far.

By Friedo at English Wikipedia

Finished in 1916, Hell Gate Bridge is a monster made of more steel than the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges combined. In spite of a mid-90’s effort to repaint it, it’s once-violent red has faded to a ghostly pink, giving it a splotchy, desolate appearance. Two stone towers squat at either end, arms and eyes of a structure built so precisely that when the final section was lifted into place, it only had to be adjusted by half an inch.

Since its inception, Hell Gate has been used exclusively for railroad traffic, and today is owned and operated primarily by Amtrak, though it supports some other passenger and freight trains. Its path stretches between Astoria and Randalls and Wards islands, which at the time of its construction housed a correctional facility and mental institution, respectively. The original lattice design of the bridge had to be altered, in fact, to soothe worries that the asylum patients might climb up it and escape. At 1,017 feet, Hell Gate was hailed as the world’s longest steel arch bridge until 1932, when Australia, inspired by Hell Gate’s grandeur, built the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It was not the last time Hell Gate would impress.

Even before the bridge was constructed, Hell Gate pass–site of the battling currents of the East, Hudson, and Harlem rivers–was infamously unsafe. Many ships opted to avoid it altogether. In the fall of 1780, the strait swallowed the motherlode of ships–the British man-of-war Hussar–dragging 140 of its crew and its $800 million worth of treasure* down into the silt. The wreckage has never been completely recovered**. Word has it also that when the tide was low, the British would chain American captives to a rock wall in the Hell Gate basin. Then, as the tide time came in, they’d sit in their boats at watch the water rise, relishing the screams of the drowning men. Later, lighthouse keepers claimed that these screams never really stopped, and could be heard echoing through the dark some one hundred years after the river ran over the rebels’ heads. Naturally, the strait continued to be a magnet for death even after the bridge was put in, attracting suicides and Mafia body drops. Once Hell Gate took them, the victims might never be found.

By squirrel83 at Flickr.
By squirrel83 at Flickr.

By the time the 70’s rolled around, the tracks were so seldom used and the bridge had fallen into such disrepair that it’s no wonder its reputation snowballed like it did. Teenagers whispered of a pedophiliac rapist living at the base in Queens–a vagrant that would pull children in to do hideous things to them before murdering (and, according to some, eating) them. The story goes that by the time the police finally went down there, all they found was a room full of photographs of the psychopath’s crime, and a horrible, pervasive stench.

After its new coat of paint in 90’s, Hell Gate was briefly able to pull itself out of the mud. Except that the color faded even as the painters put it on. Except that people started to climb up to explore the tracks late at night, and wonder about how many had died there. Sometimes, stumbling over the black rails, they would see lights. The lights would wax, consolidate into one or two spots, then barrel straight at the traveller along the tracks, only to disappear before running them over.

And sometimes, people would turn and see faces staring back at them from a half-formed train car.

If you’d like to experience Hell Gate in all its glory, the city of New York has made it quite easy, even going so far as to construct a cheerful walking path right along where American soldiers were drowned, where asylum inmates reached up in hopes of escape, where children were rumored to have been dragged to their doom.

Can’t make it right away? Not to worry! Even in the event every human in New York is wiped out, Hells Gate Bridge will last for a milenium more–seven hundred years after all other bridges crumble to dust.

It’ll wait.

* Mimimum estimated 2015 market value.

** Not for lack of trying. For more info, see Myths and Mysteries of New York: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained, by Fran Capo