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The Octagon (Photo: Octagonnyc.com)

You Live in a What? 10 Crazy NYC Building Conversions

In a city where space is a premium, all kinds of buildings get repurposed for residential use; we've identified 10 of the coolest (police headquarters), quirkiest (seminary dorm room) and weirdest (former insane asylum)

You live where? In a what? It’s a question New Yorkers of all stripes often get asked as there’s no choice but to pack into just about every livable space the city has to offer. A former lunatic asylum now marketed as a shiny condo development?You’ll find it on Roosevelt Island. A home built for wealthy old ladies, later used as a brothel? It’s now a luxury condo building in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill. Former firehouses, churches, carriage homes, hotels, hospitals, factories, dorms – nothing’s off limits. Read on for the 10 craziest building conversions in New York City.

 

70 Barrow Street, 166 E 73rd Street

L: 70 Barrow Street, West Village (Photo: Zerofeenyc.com), R: 166 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side (Photo: Herbert Rose Building Restoration)

Firehouse
70 Barrow Street, West Village

The city erected a number of firehouses in the mid to late 19th century — often buildings distinguished by high, arched entryways. Due to budget cuts across the decades, the city has shut down many of these firehouses, and many of the buildings have found second lives as residences. The firehouse at 70 Barrow Street in the West Village is a prime example of this type of conversion. Built in 1851 for the Empire Hose Volunteer crew, it didn’t last long as a firehouse – the group disbanded in 1865. Now it’s a fully occupied rental building, and while the apartment interiors don’t divulge the building’s past, the building’s spiral staircase, back from the firehouse days, is visible through the front window.

Carriage house
166 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, wealthy New Yorkers had enough room to live in a home and to house their horses and carriages in designated buildings known as carriage homes. Now many of these old carriage houses are coveted residences. One such building, known as the Marquand stable at 166 East 73rd Street, has been restored and renovated into a private two-family residence. The New York Times chronicled the renovation of the building in 2007, which once housed a washing area, spaces for three carriages, three double and six single horse stalls, and a rear yard with a manure pit. The building’s origins were for years hidden behind a layer of stucco likely applied by the MacDowell Club, which the renovation removed. The units are not on the market; however, in this short stretch of the Upper East Side, on East 73rd Street between Lexington and Third avenues, there is a high concentration of carriage houses. Their development began in the early 1880s and expanded to surrounding blocks.

 

58 Strong Place, 240 Centre

L: 58 Strong Place, Cobble Hill (Photo: Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia CC), R: 240 Centre Street, Little Italy / Nolita (Photo: Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia CC)

Church
58 Strong Place, Cobble Hill

Holy condo apartments! The landmarked church at 58 Strong Place is enjoying its second life as a luxury apartment building in the brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. The great Brooklyn architect Minard Lafever designed this English Gothic Revival church, erected in 1855. It completely shuttered in the late 90s, and the beautiful interior suffered water damage from a leaking roof. In 2006, developers and architects sought to transform the building into a condo development. During a long renovation process (units didn’t hit the market until 2010), the developers carved out 24 units while maintaining the mahogany windows, original brass chandeliers and the church’s wooden carved altarpiece. The 158-year-old bell, rescued from the church’s steeple, is on display in front of the building. It’s not cheap to live among such holy artifacts — a three-bedroom condo unit entered contract this summer priced at $2.8 million. There are more such renovations around Brooklyn, sometimes known as the borough of churches for its proliferation of houses of worship in the 19th century.

Police headquarters
240 Centre Street, Little Italy / Nolita

There must be a rule somewhere in the architectural handbook that police headquarters should look stately and intimidating. That’s certainly the case at 240 Centre Street, a Beaux Arts structure erected in 1909. The building served as the headquarters of the NYC Police Department from 1909 until 1973, and then fell into disuse. Developers converted the building, now known as the Police Building Apartments, in 1988. The grand lobby was restored and remains in fantastic condition. The building also has one of the most unique residences in New York City: the 10-room apartment in the former Police Headquarters’ gym. It took famed architect Charles Gwathmey four years to design this space, which revolves around a massive arched gym ceiling. The unit hit the market a few years ago for $14.5 million. Otherwise, the building has three units available from $1.595 to $4.150 million.

 

420 Washingtone Ave, 130 West 12

L: 320 Washington Avenue, Clinton Hill (Photo: Douglas Elliman Real Estate) R: 130 West 12th Street, West Village (Photo: 130west12.com)

Home for old ladies and prostitutes
320 Washington Avenue, Clinton Hill

Only in New York can a building designed for “respectable, aged, indigent females,” fall into disrepair, become a brothel, and be reborn into a luxury condo development. The Clinton Hill building debuted as “Brooklyn Society for the Relief of Respectable, Aged, Indigent Females” in 1851, providing shelter to 90 women, all of whom had to be at least 60 years old and come from respectable families in Brooklyn. (The home also required them to provide good references.) It stayed in business until the 1950s, although the name changed to the “Graham Home of Old Ladies” at the turn of the century. In the 1960s the building reopened as the Bull Shippers Motel, a notorious neighborhood brothel. After complaints from neighbors, the police shuttered it in 1985, and it sat empty for 15 years. In 2001, it was reborn as a condo building. The building’s upscale interior shows no sign of a nursing home or a seedy hotel, but the beautiful Romanesque Revival structure carries with it a distinct relic of the past: a plaque above the entryway that reads “Graham Home for Old Ladies.”

Hospital
130 West 12th Street, West Village

St. Vincent’s Hospital was founded in 1849, the third oldest hospital in New York City. The complex grew to include several hospital buildings and a number of outpatient facilities, but after struggling with bankruptcy, it ultimately closed its doors in 2010. The redevelopment of St. Vincent’s has been, in a word, controversial. Many Village residents lamented the loss of a hospital to high-end real estate, but real estate did come to 130 West 12th Street, and there’s more of it to follow. This was just the first of the hospital buildings to launch as a residential development. Condo units, priced from $1.415 million for a one bedroom to $12.85 million for a four-bedroom penthouse, have sleek finishes, high ceilings and large windows. It didn’t take long for the development to sell out, although there’s one penthouse resale on the market asking $10.95 million. Up next are another hospital building converted into a rental at 555 Sixth Avenue and an apartment building/townhouse combo project on West 12th Street called Greenwich Lane. In total, the new development will bring 350 more units to the complex in about two years’ time.

 

422 West 20th Street, 2109 Broadway

Seminary dorm
422 West 20th Street, Chelsea

The idea of a dorm room, especially when said dorm room was built for married theology students, doesn’t exactly say “sexy New York City real estate.” Yet, the building at 422 West 20th Street, previously owned by the Chelsea Seminary, received just that kind of renovation. It’s one of three buildings the gorgeous, historic seminary sold off to developers in exchange for major cash, perhaps an acknowledgement of its past. The developer carved out modestly sized apartment units ranging from 612 to 1,644 square feet. When sales launched in 2011, prices ranged from $640,000 to $2.095 million. The final apartment unit hit the market about six months ago for $1.885 million and entered contract this summer.

Hotel
2109 Broadway, Upper West Side

The Ansonia Hotel is hard to miss when you’re traveling north on Broadway. The spectacular Beaux Arts building stands 18 stories high and is covered with ornamentation, balconies, ironwork, corner towers and mansards. Copper heir William Earle Dodge Stokes built the Ansonia in the early 20th century, and when it opened in 1904, it was considered the grandest hotel of its day. The building even featured a rooftop farm! The wealthy guests considered this a residential hotel where they could stay for long periods of time and remain comfortable in units with multiple bedrooms, parlors, libraries and formal dining rooms. And although these grand apartments have mostly been divided into smaller units, the majority still retain original architectural details. In 1992 developers converted the building into condos. Wealthy buyers purchased clusters of small apartments to combine in an effort to recreate the grand rooms originally designed for the building. The rooftop farm, sadly, is long gone. There are two units on the market at the Ansonia, a one bedroom for $2.1 million and a seven bedroom for $12 million.

 

888 Main Street, 28 Thomson

L: 888 Main Street, Roosevelt Island (Photo: Octagonnyc.com), R: 27-28 Thompson Avenue (Photo: MNS Real Estate)

Lunatic asylum
888 Main Street, Roosevelt Island

You heard us right, a lunatic asylum converted to high-end apartment units that may be haunted (the New York Times featured it in its 2007 Haunted New York article and Curbed.com once posted a possible ghost photo). The New York City Lunatic Asylum opened in 1841 on Roosevelt Island, an area picked to provide a peaceful surrounding for its patients. Unfortunately this hospital became notorious for its poor treatment. The building entrance, known as The Octagon, is the last remnant of the hospital, which closed in 1955. In the years the complex sat empty, it suffered decay and fires. The Octagon is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but today it serves a different purpose — used as the entrance lobby to a shiny condo development. The developers, who picked up the spooky site in 2006, aren’t exactly itching to share the site’s history with insanity — the website refers to the hospital as “a beautifully designed island retreat” and uses some out-of-context Charles Dickens quotes about the building to their advantage. So how much to rent one of the 500 apartments built here? Prices currently range from $2,400/month for a studio to $5,900/month for a three bedroom.

Factory and warehouse
27-28 Thompson Avenue

The warehouse conversion is such a staple of New York City real estate that you’ll find warehouses of nearly all manufacturing and industrial purposes used as apartment units in the city. The hardwood floors, high ceilings and gigantic windows initially appealed to artists seeking out large, cheap spaces in the burned out New York of the 70s and early 80s, but now New Yorkers pay big bucks to live in the buildings. The Arris Loft development, at 27-28 Thompson Avenue in Hunters Point, Queens, was formerly the Eagle Electric Factory and Warehouse. The 1920s-era factory produced switches and other electrical devices. A residential conversion began in the early 2000s, carving apartments out of the former factory and adding a new-five story building next door. There are 14 condo units currently on the market, priced from $325,000 to $1.5 million. The interior appointments include warehouse-appropriate features of hardwood floors, 13-foot ceilings and gigantic windows. One thing the Arris Loft development has that the electric factory definitely did not is a 53-foot lap pool.