BY GABE HERMAN | Even as the Village changes all around it, the historic Northern Dispensary continues to sit steadfast and vacant on its own triangular island. The building has been that way for decades, due to a restrictive deed from the 19th century and ownership by a real estate company known for buying Downtown properties and then sitting on them.
William Gottlieb Real Estate, however, has been slightly more active recently, developing some of its properties in the Village and Meatpacking District. Starting about six years ago, there have even been internal renovations done on the Northern Dispensary, at Waverly Place and Christopher St. And it was recently used for a fundraising event, according to Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
The Northern Dispensary opened in 1831 and included a deed that it must be used for medical care for the “worthy poor.” Further restrictions were added by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which bought the building in 1990, before selling it to William Gottlieb in 1998. Those prohibitions include performing abortions and “any obscene performances on the premises or any obscene or pornographic purposes,” according to The New York Times.
The Dispensary, called “Northern” because at the time it was in the city’s upper reaches, for more than a century treated patients as a medical clinic, including Edgar Allan Poe in 1837 for a head cold.
By the 1960s, it had transitioned into a dental clinic. The clinic was sued in the 1980s for refusing to treat a man with AIDS. Financial trouble led to the clinic’s closure, and the Archdiocese planned to make it a facility for AIDS patients, but some local residents disapproved and the idea was scrapped. That eventually led to the sale to William Gottlieb in 1998 for $760,000. The Dispensary has been vacant ever since.
Gottlieb was known for eccentricities like his shabby dress and driving a station wagon with broken windows. He bought up many properties but hardly renovated any of them, and refused to sell. He died in 1999, and around 100 buildings, with an estimated total value of up to $1 billion, went to his sister Mollie Bender, who was also reclusive and did nothing with the properties. Mollie died in 2007 and now her son Neil Bender runs the company’s operations.
In recent years, the company has started to act on some properties, though, according to Berman of G.V.S.H.P. He noted the company is redeveloping the Keller Hotel, at Barrow and West Sts., which The Villager covered in 2017, reporting how the project was facing strong opposition from neighbors.
Gottlieb also owns the buildings on the south side of Gansevoort St. in the “Gansevoort Row” project. That project — to raze parts of the commercial block and rebuild it higher — faced strong opposition, as well as a lawsuit. Berman said the company has also received approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to develop a new building at 540 Hudson St., near Charles St., the location of Bill Gottlieb’s former office.
Berman said of the Gottlieb company’s increased activity, “It’s been building over the last several years. I wouldn’t describe it necessarily as sudden, but from a long period of zero activity, they’ve definitely started to amp up.”
Berman said plans for the landmarked Northern Dispensary, however, which is located in the Greenwich Village Historic District, remain unknown.
“I know that they rented it out, for one or two events,” he said, which he thought might have been a fundraiser for a nonprofit of some kind. “We haven’t seen many signs of activity [there] in the last year or so.”
Two construction permits issued in 2013 remain posted on one of the Dispensary’s windows, referring to repairs of the chimney, and “roof renovations consisting of roof replacement.”
“We know that a couple years ago they hired somebody to take a look at the building in terms of how structurally sound it was,” said Berman, “and it seems as though some efforts were made to kind of make sure the building was being physically maintained, which is encouraging.”
Even nearby locals, including shop owners along Christopher St., are perplexed by the empty edifice. Across the street, a woman working at Personal Touch Cleaners said she knew nothing about the place but had wondered why it was empty.
A few doors down at clothing shop Laina Jane, the eponymous owner said she couldn’t remember the building ever being occupied, despite her owning the shop since 1988. She said it would help the area if the structure were put to some use.
“It’s such a waste,” Jane said.
William Gottlieb Real Estate did not respond to requests for comment about its plans for the Northern Dispensary.
Andrew Berman said of the Dispensary, “It’s a very special building, it’s a very historically significant building. We ideally would like it to be occupied and used productively.”