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Varying Access

I took that picture recently on West 44th Street. I assume the the lot will be redeveloped in the near future, but for now we’ve got a nice clear building ghost to examine. (Also, way off in the distance, formerly hidden by the small demolished building, we’ve got 30 Rockefeller Plaza, my second-favorite skyscraper.) (Also, as this is a family-friendly blog, I feel I should point out that the “Strip House” is a steak restaurant.)

The ghost doesn’t make it clear what kind of building the demolished structure was. As I describe below, there’s reason to believe it was a small apartment house, hotel, or commercial building, as opposed to the repurposed rowhouses that are still fairly common on the side streets in midtown. On the other hand, it is clear that the demolished building was constructed before its neighbor to the west, with the Strip House, which has a facade that suggests the 1910s or 20s.

It appears that the ghost is a true incorporeal ghost rather than a piece of the old building: the ghost masonry is in the same plane as the upper side wall of the bigger, newer building. That could be accomplished, if the old wall had been a party wall, by carefully chipping off the portion of the wall on the east side of the property line. If that was done here, it’s the first place I’ve encountered it, and I’ve seen a lot of these ghosts. More likely this was a single building without party walls, so its side walls were always independent of the newer neighbors.

We also have, inadvertently, a minor tutorial on how masons build a wall depending on the neighboring context. The side wall at the 6th floor and up is very regular and smooth, because the masons had free access on both the inside and outside face. (They probably had access to the outside via scaffold, but even if the owner of the demolished building forbade that use of the airspace, they could freely lean over the partially-complete wall from the interior as they worked.

The front and rear of the demolished building obviously extended to the lot line. The brick in those areas is rough and wavy because it was built blind: the masons only had access from inside the new building, They were laying brick up against the demolished building’s west wall and had to both conform to its geometry and work without access to the outside face.

The middle of the demolished building is the most interesting. There was some kind of airshaft/light-court here – which is why I’m sure this was not a rowhouse – so there was partial access from the new building. The brick is more regular than the blind-built areas but less so than the free-access areas. My guess, and it really is just a guess, is that the masons had room to lean over from the inside of the new building but not enough room to hang a scaffold.

With regard to my trying to figure out what someone was doing a hundred years ago on the basis of scant physical evidence, I’ll pass the mic to Mr. Twain:

The Mississippi between Cairo and New Orleans was twelve hundred and fifteen miles long one hundred and seventy-six years ago. It was eleven hundred and eighty after the cut-off of 1722. It was one thousand and forty after the American Bend cut-off. It has lost sixty-seven miles since. Consequently its length is only nine hundred and seventy-three miles at present. . . . In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. This is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.