Monday, December 14, 2015

The Lost St. Luke's Hospital -- W. 54th Street and Fifth Avenue

Architects' and Builders' Guide published a rendering of the building in 1868 (copyright expired)
On March 16, 1853 The New York Times reported that the Board of Aldermen had received a request from the managers of St. Luke’s Hospital, “asking permission to sell the lots conveyed to them by the Corporation two years since” and using the proceeds to purchase a larger lot uptown. 

The plot in which the hospital was interested, indeed, further uptown.

St. Luke’s Hospital had been founded seven years later, in 1846, by the pastor of the Church of the Holy Communion, Rev. William Augustus Muhlenberg.  It was operated by the church's Sisterhood, established in 1845, and was described in The Charities of New-York, Brooklyn and Staten Island by Henry J. Cammann and Hugh N. Camp:  “It is simply a body of Protestant Christian women, drawn together by a common motive, and bound together by a common aim.  No vows of any kind bind the Sisters to their work or to each other, but after a trial of six months they engage for a term of three years, which they may renew or not at pleasure.”

The hospital was incorporated on April 25, 1850, and now planned its modern, expansive facility.   It purchased the entire block of West 54th Street from Fifth to Sixth Avenues.  The location was chosen not only for the inexpensive real estate, but because the remote, high location provided an abundance of sunshine and fresh air.

The area was almost entirely undeveloped.  Three blocks to the south was the large Catholic Orphan Asylum and at 44th Street was the Colored Orphan Asylum.  Otherwise, the rutty dirt road known as Fifth Avenue was essentially barren above the Croton Reservoir at 42nd Street.

The cornerstone of what The New York Times anticipated would be “a splendid and spacious edifice” was laid on Saturday, May 6, 1854.  A crowd of around 300 had traveled to the site on an unusually cold spring day.  The officials of the hospital assured the assemblage that funds would not be wasted on frivolities.

“The managers have gone to no outlay in mere architectural ornament—relying for any beauty of structure on symmetry and proportion—which they are sure will be such that the hospital will present no unsightly object among the buildings likely to grace this part of the City.”  The Times gave a near-apology for the materials.  “The material will be of brick, but will be so treated by the architect as to ensure a good effect.”

That architect was Jonathan (known as John) W. Ritch, of the firm Ritch & Griffiths.   His three-story Italianate design smacked of the institutional buildings being designed by James Renwick, Jr. for the city on Blackwell’s Island.  The central section was dominated by the chapel, which was flanked by two four-story towers.  Expansive wards branched off to either side—the western ward for men, the eastern for women.

Floorplans from An Account of St. Luke's Hospital, 1860 (copyright expired)
At the time of the cornerstone laying the cost of the completed structure, including furnishings, was estimated to be $150,000—about $4.4 million in 2015.  Because only half of that amount had been raised, the hospital would be constructed in sections.  “They will therefore proceed with the erection of two-thirds of the building as planned, in the confidence that when that much is done they will have the means of completed the whole,” said The Times.

Rev. Muhlenberg took the opportunity to chide New Yorkers for not having yet contributed.  “Perhaps they are waiting until they are assured we are in earnest, and this day’s demonstration may be all that is wanting to bring their names to the subscription list.” 

By the time half of the building was completed and the chapel opened on June 22, 1857, the cost had risen to $200,000.  Half of that amount had been raised.   Less than a year after the chapel opened, the hospital was completed and on May 13, 1858 it opened its doors to patients.

Although St. Luke’s was affiliated with the Episcopal Church, its 200 beds were available to all creeds.  Its charitable approach to medical care was evidenced by the cost of a private room.  Patients who preferred not to stay in a common ward paid $3.05 per week; yet the cost to the institution was $4.65.

An 1863 stereopticon slide reveals the undeveloped Fifth Avenue neighborhood -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

The hospital filled not only with the sick, but with victims of a variety of sometimes bizarre accidents.  Lyke Flynn was a laborer, working in the creation of Central Park, when he was struck “by a large stone which fell upon him from a derrick,” reported The New York Times on October 22, 1858.  He did not survive.

Another laborer, 60-year old William Simmons, “was precipitated from a scaffold at a house in Fifty-fifth-street” where he was working on February 7, 1860.  He, too, died of his injuries.  And Mary Brown, a servant of a family on East 83rd Street, was standing in the yard of that house in October that year as construction workers blasted for the foundation of a building across the street.  A stone flew into the air, crashing down on Mary’s head.

The Times reported “As soon as the contractor having charge of the work heard of the injury which had resulted from his carelessness he fled to escape arrest.”  Mary was taken to St. Luke’s where “the physician in whose care she has been placed considers her recovery impossible.  Her skull is fractured.”

The Civil War changed day-to-day operations in St. Luke’s as half of its 200 beds were devoted to wounded soldiers.  On July 9, 1862 The Times noted that hundreds of “poor fellows, who, a few short months, or it may be weeks ago, left their homes, sound and stalwart, hopeful and reliant, to do battle for the flag under which they were born, or to which they owned allegiance.  They come back to us diseased, mutilated, overwrought in mind, and body, demanding from all in whose power it may be to aid them every attention that time, thought and money can bestow.”

One of those soldiers in 1862 was Corporal James Marchall, the color bearer of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment who was injured in the battle of Gaines’ Mill.  Refusing to allow the flag to be taken by the enemy, he buried it where he knew he could go back and retrieve it.  He was taken prisoner shortly afterward, with his thumb shot off.  After being imprisoned in Richmond for some time he was released and ended up in St. Luke’s.

A different type of war victim would be brought here the following year when the bloody Draft Riots erupted on the streets of New York.  Eighteen-year old Francis McCade did not survive the gunshot he received on the corner of 36th Street and Ninth Avenue on July 14, 1863, for instance. 

One policeman after another was brought in after being assaulted by the mob.  Officer Bennett was knocked down three times before he stopped fighting.  Unconscious, he was robbed of everything “save his drawers” according to newspapers.  The mob left him for dead and he was taken to the Dead House.  When his wife visited his body several hours later, she realized he had a heartbeat.  He was brought to St. Luke’s.

Office Travis was pursued by the rabble, one of which had a pistol.  Travis turned on him, knocked him down and secured the weapon; but the crowd was on him before he could use it.  “He fell beneath a score of clubs, was stamped, jumped upon, and otherwise terribly assailed; his jaw was broken, his teeth knocked out, his head terribly cut, and he left for dead, after being stripped of every article of clothing, even to shirt and stockings.”

A score of other police officers were brought in; including Officer Didway who was beaten so badly that his eye was forced out of the socket.

The Rev. Dr. Muhlenberg was not only an accomplished orator and minister; he was a poet and hymn writer.  In reaction to the horrors of the war, he wrote “The President’s Hymn” as Thanksgiving approached in 1863.  The hymn sought the quick restoration of “Liberty and Peace.”  The editor of The New York Times sent a copy to Abraham Lincoln, asking his permission on behalf of Dr. Muhlenberg to use the title.  He received a telegram from the Secretary of State a few hours later which said the President had replied “Let it be so called.”

Around 1865 one house, owned by wealthy merchant William P. Williams, had been constructed on West 54th Street.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Things returned to normal after the end of the war and physicians at St. Luke’s Hospital returned to treating ill and injured citizens.  On the afternoon of September 9, 1867 Robert Goliver attempted to jump off the front platform of a moving Sixth Avenue street car.  He fell under the car and a wheel passed over his foot, cutting it badly.  Two weeks later John McDonough fell from the third floor of a newly-constructed building at 54th Street and Third Avenue.  He fractured his skull and sustained other injuries.

The hospital served 1,027 patients in 1868, 172 of which were children.  Patients who could afford to paid $7 a week while here, including all necessary medication and treatment (an enviable fee of about $120 in 2015 dollars).  Children paid $4.

Muhlenberg’s assistant pastor at the time was a Southerner, Fleming James.  He was in Baltimore in 1869 visiting a clergyman when, according to James, “he was suddenly called upon to read the burial service” of John Wilkes Booth.  For the past four years the assassin’s body had been moved from place to place for various identifications; and finally had been released to his family for burial.

James explained in July “As he was just going out of town, he requested me to do it for him.  I consented, having but a few moments for reflection, and seeing no good reason for refusing.”  Fleming James officiated at the burial of America’s most hated citizen.  Reaction from the press and the community in general was scathing.

On June 30, 1869 Fleming James resigned his position with St. Luke’s Hospital over the uproar.  His letter of explanation insisted that his “Southern feelings had nothing to do with the matter.  I acted wholly from a sense of duty at the time.  I need scarcely say that I have no sympathy with the assassination of which the deceased was guilty.”

Dr. Muhlenberg was especially aware of the children in the hospital at Christmas time.  On Christmas Eve 1870 he reminded those assembled in the chapel that Christmas was a “peculiarly the children’s day.”  Following the service, visitors went to the children’s ward where The Times said “most of the children are cripples.”

The room was unlit except for the 100 candles on the Christmas tree.  “The kind visitors passed from couch to couch, speaking words of comfort to the little sufferers, and wishing them a merry Christmas.”  The group sang a few hymns.

“When these were concluded, the tree was stripped of its rich treasures, and each child was presented with several nice presents,” said the newspaper.

On the night of April 8, 1877 Dr. William Augustus Muhlenberg died at the age of 80.  The Times said “Now that he is gone, people will begin to realize the gap which his absence makes in a large community busy with its own affairs.”    His funeral was held in the chapel of St. Luke’s Hospital on the afternoon of April 11.

An omnibus pauses by the impressive 54th Street gate posts.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The extraordinary ability of St. Luke’s Hospital’s physicians and surgeons was exhibited in the case of Lucy Osborn.  In 1874 the 19-year old was working in a button factory in New Medford, Connecticut.  Her hair was “arranged in long, luxuriant curls” and as she bent over the revolving shaft of the button machine on September 23, her hair became caught.  The New York Times later reported “Her face was wrenched down close to the shaft, the hair refused to give way, and the entire scalp was taken clean off.”

When local doctors could not help her, she was brought to St. Luke’s on December 1, 1874.  It was the beginning of a complicated procedure of skin grafts to replace her scalp.  Dr. Weir applied ointments designed to aid production of new tissue for 27 days.  Then “little pieces of thin skin, not larger than a millet-seed, were carefully taken from the arm of a healthy man, and 25 of these were grafted on the head of Lucy.”   Some of the tiny grafts grew; most were rejected.  But the doctor persistently pushed on. 

As the news of Lucy’s case was publicized, donors came forth.  The New York Times reported “Several prominent clergymen of the City contributed grafts, and portions of the skin of many fashionable ladies furnished a nucleus for the scalp which Lucy Osborn now wears.”

On July 17, 1880, more than six years after the procedure was started, The New York Times reported “The new scalp which has been built up for Lucy Osborn is hard, white, and glossy.  There are no pores in the tissue, and it can never bear hair.”  But, the newspaper said, “Lucy is in the best of health and spirits, and expects to have a completely reconstructed scalp soon.”

By now the neighborhood around St. Luke’s Hospital had filled with the mansions of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.  The real estate value of the block had soared.  On October 24, 1891 The Real Estate Record &  Builders’ Guide reported “It has been definitely settled upon that St. Luke’s Hospital is to move.”

George Maccullough Miller, President of the hospital, told a Guide reporter “We are now placing our property on the market for sale.  Our price is $2,500,000.  We prefer to sell it as a whole.  There are thirty-two lots.”

A few days later the Record & Guide opined “Real estate on that avenue sells for very high prices, not because it is suited to be the site for hospitals, but because custom has made it desirable for the residences of the rich…Quite a fashion has set in of late for millionaires to build very expensive residences on upper 5th avenue; and there must be enough of them left to absorb this last remaining and very desirable property.”

There was interest in the property, but no one seemed willing to purchase the entire plot.  The exclusive Union Club negotiated for the Fifth Avenue corner and it seemed for awhile that the hospital officials would sell that plot. 

Then on June 3, 1893 The Record & Guide reported that Charles A. Seymour & Co had purchased the entire property for $2.4 million.  The firm had already negotiated the sale of certain parcels. 

When Robert L. Bracklow took this photograph around 1890, the hospital building's days were numbered.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
 St. Luke’s Hospital relocated to 113th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive in 1896.  The old structure was demolished and one by one lavish homes rose on the block, anchored by McKim, Mead & White’s grand University Club on the Fifth Avenue corner, completed in 1899.

The University Club sits at the corner of Fifth Avenue, while down the block newly constructed mansions can be seen.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

1 comment:

  1. Remarkable, as I worked on 54th & 5th, across from the University Club, for six-and-a-half years.