Homes Built for Healing – The New York Times


Medical facilities have been abandoned over time for a variety of reasons, Mr. Sutton said. It might have been a need to expand, or to follow clientele to a new neighborhood, or because new medical practices required a more modern structure. Some of these buildings, like the New York Cancer Hospital on Central Park West, have historical significance and architectural flair. “We see abandoned churches and houses of worship repurposed as apartment buildings — why not a hospital as a residential building?” he said.

In Park Slope, Brooklyn, Adina Halperin, 22, a recent college graduate, said she had learned about the history of the home she shares with her parents, the former Skene Sanitarium, from a cafeteria worker at her former middle school.

“Growing up, I didn’t know this used to be a hospital until I had this conversation with this lunch lady,” Ms. Halperin said. “When I was in middle school, I was kind of shy. She picked up on it early on. One day I was upset, she wanted to talk and asked me where I lived. And she said, ‘Oh, my husband was born in there.’ He had passed away a year or two before that conversation.”

Her parents, Mark and Marcia Halperin, both retired teachers, purchased their two-bedroom apartment in 1994, when Marcia was pregnant with Adina.

“We looked at this place in early November when the light was coming at the right angle; it was filled with light,” Mrs. Halperin recalled. “We looked and looked and tramped up and down many staircases of brownstones. And we did that for about 40 apartments. And then we said, ‘Let’s go back to look at the first place.’ ” The light would be ideal for entertaining and the high ceilings would give them plenty of room for their books. “And so that’s when we settled on this,” she added.

Mrs. Halperin said she was often approached by strangers who told her they knew somebody who was born in the building, which was built in 1884. “A woman who’s lived in the neighborhood a long time said her sister was born here, and her brother had his tonsils out,” she said.

Eileen Richter, an associate real estate broker with Brown Harris Stevens, said the building was a unique option among the many brownstones in Park Slope.

“The building is charming; you walk through the old-fashioned Victorian gates and right into the beautifully landscaped courtyard,” she said. “We haven’t really advertised the sanitarium past, but the interior common hallways do feel like it was an institution. The large elevator that was clearly made to accommodate gurneys is a big tip-off.”

Mrs. Halperin, who was born in Caledonian Hospital, on Prospect Park South, which has also been converted to apartments, said her home offered both city and sanctuary. “I actually feel that contrast,” she said. “The windows in the front of the apartment face the street; the school is on the block. You do feel there that it’s city and busy with cars. And while you still hear city sounds here in the kitchen, you do hear birds. It really is an enclave.”

Farther south in Park Slope, Amihai Ulman, 42, and his family have done their best to preserve the details of the six-unit building on 12th Street that they purchased in 2003 for $689,000. Evidence points to the home’s previous life as a sanitarium.

Mr. Ulman, a native of Israel and a founder of the media company MASS Exchange, and his wife, Karin Ulman, 39, a teacher who is originally from Denmark, already owned a four-unit building on the same block, which they had purchased in 2000 for $310,000 and renovated.

Ready for another project, they purchased the second building. They learned its history from an elderly neighbor who had lived in a house across the street since she was 8 years old; her parents had bought the house from the original owners.

Photo

The winding staircases that lead up to the apartments at the Cherokee can be a cardiovascular challenge for residents and visitors, but they are one of the many distinctive and beautiful design elements.

Credit
Robert Wright for The New York Times

The couple in the building next door to the Ulmans’ newer home also knew some of its history. “The story was that both of these buildings were built as a pair, probably in the early 1860s, and that their house was built as a quarters for nurses and doctors,” Mr. Ulman said. His house, he added, was a sanitarium for soldiers returning from the Civil War.

Although the Ulmans were interested in homes with character, it was initially the price that drew them to both the former sanitarium and their two-family home, which they believe may have operated as an inn.

“We were just driving around and saw an open house,” Mrs. Ulman said. “People in front of us walked up the steps and turned right around and walked down. That was what attracted us, that it was what nobody else wanted.”

Luke Alberts, a licensed associate real estate broker at Halstead Property who has rented the apartments in both of Mr. Ulman’s buildings, said, “Customers have been enchanted upon learning that the building had been a sanitarium.”

The Ulmans have tenants in both buildings and reside in the former sanitarium with their three children and Mr. Ulman’s father. Mr. Ulman took on the renovation of the home himself, and was surprised to find a treasure trove of artifacts underneath the hearthstone of the fireplace.

“I put my shovel into it and started seeing stuff,” he said. “And I was like, whoa, this is very cool. We saved it. It’s literally been in a box for years.” Items unearthed from the fireplace include an invitation to a dance, with an envelope dated 1885; a clothespin; spectacles; and a piece of a newspaper.

Back at the Cherokee, Ms. Kolendo gave a nod to her building’s past, when, on a warm spring afternoon, she threw open the floor-to-ceiling window to her balcony to “take the air,” just as the former residents would have done. The place has become a respite for her as well.

“It’s so hard to be in the city sometimes,” she said. “People are on top of you all of the time. You’re in a gritty dark subway. There’s so much heaviness that comes with city life. So just walking into a place that’s open and light and airy — it just makes you feel better mentally.”

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