When Prime Burger, the deluxe hyper-historical midtown diner, shut down for good a couple weeks ago, there was a lot of talk about the location's 74 years of burger-making, first as a Hamburger Heaven, then as Prime Burger.
But as I looked up at the old, four-story townhouse that Prime Burger's blood-sucking landlord owned (and Prime Burger used to own), I couldn't help but wonder that the structure's pre-griddle history was.
5 East 51st Street. Just off Fifth Avenue, right across the street from St. Patrick's. Pretty swanky location. Building looks a bit on the grand side. Could this have been a private home of the mansion type from New York's gilded age?
I found my answer pretty quickly, courtesy of a 2009 New York Times article from the indispensable Christopher Gray. He wrote that this side street was part of the "millionaire district" that surrounded the cathedral in the 1890s and early 1900s. The land on the north side of E. 51st Street was once the location of the block-wide Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, which was built in 1851.
The Asylum was bought by a syndicate for $2 million, torn down in 1901 and the land carved up for development. Of the mansions that quickly went up, only Nos. 5, 7 and 11 survive today. No. 5, the future home of cheeseburgers, fries and slices of pie a la mode, was built by architect Percy Griffin and the home of John Melcher, a rich lawyer who handled many a wealthy person's estate in his time. Melcher was a member of the Union League Club. A long walk to the club he had; it was right next door. In 1914, somebody staying at the Melcher place threw a cigarette out the window and set the awning on fire. The photo below shows the row in 1940, but sadly doesn't include No. 5.