Illustrate New York City and Surroundings, 1889 (copyright expired)
The concept of the "usefulness and necessity of a public hospital" in New York City was introduced by Samuel Bard in 1769 in his address to the first two doctors to graduate from King's College. Two years later, King George III granted a royal charger to establish The Society of the New York Hospital in the City of New York in America. Delayed by the war, the hospital finally opened on January 3, 1791 on Broadway between Duane and Worth Streets.
The original New York Hospital Building on Broadway. Annual Report of the New York Hospital 1922, (copyright expired)
In the years following the end of the Civil War, the New York Hospital had outgrown its building. In 1875 lots were purchased in the fashionable neighborhood of Fifth Avenue and 15th Street. As construction of the building began, the trustees expanded the project. On April 4, 1876, the New York Herald reported, "During the year, the society has purchased four additional lots on Fifteenth street and Fifth avenue for the purpose of extending the frontage of the new hospital now being built."
Architect George B. Post, who would design the massive Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion just two years later, turned to the French Gothic style for this project. Seven stories tall, it was faced in brick and trimmed with gray sandstone. Its top floor detonated with fletches, pyramidal caps and dormers. Deep, iron-railed balconies fronted the third through fifth floors on either side of the central pavilion. Here, said The New York Times, "convalescent patients can go out and sit in the window seats and watch the stream of travel and traffic through the street." The newspaper wrote, "Spires and finials break the severity of the outline against the sky and give the building a pleasing finish. Rows of lofty windows with stained-glass transoms cross and recross the front."
Construction was completed early in 1877 and the building officially opened on March 16. The New-York Tribune wrote, "Four thousand invitations had been issued for the opening ceremonies, and it seemed as if a majority of the invited persons were present. In view of the disagreeable snow-storm the attendance of ladies was large." The article said that following the addresses, the guests "had an opportunity to inspect its almost palatial halls." Dr. William H. Van Buren gave the long speech, which recapped the history of the hospital, its advances in medicine, and its famous practitioners. Victorian oratory was routinely lengthy by 21st century perspectives, and it took its toll on one audience member. The article said, "During the delivery of the address happened a sad case of somnolence; a gentleman of mature age dropped into rhythmic snoring, and caused a smile to ripple over the vast audience."
The project totaled $900,000 (including the land, building, furniture and fixtures,), a staggering $24 million in 2022. The hospital had been designed as a modern facility with scientific innovations. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper called the building "absolutely fireproof," saying, "The only wood employed in its construction is in the doors. The flooring throughout is composed of tiles laid in cement on iron beams." Astonishingly, the walls were composed of "iron and sand, with iron lathing."
Airborne bacteria and odors were removed from wards through an ingenious system of air ducts. In his 1893 Hospitals and Asylums of The World, Henry C. Burdett wrote, "In the New York Hospital the registers for the exit of fouled air are placed in the floor, one beneath each bed, and from these openings horizontal flues beneath the floor lead to the vertical four-air shafts built in the thick outer walls."
The glass-ceilinged top floor was outfitted as a "solatrium," or "sun-bath." In its April 1878 issue, Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine said it was "flooded with sunlight" and patients could enjoy "a conservatory of rare plants and flowers, and fresh and salt water aquaria containing every variety of aquatic life, from the lower to the highest grades."
Patients and visitors sit among tropical plants in the solarium. Their voluminous Victorian costumes raise questions about how beneficial the sunlight was. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 31, 1877 (copyright expired)
A month's outpatient treatment cost $1, unless the patient could not afford to pay. Patients requiring in-house treatment were charged $1 per day for a ward bed and $15 to $50 a week for a private room ($1,330 for the most expensive by today's standards). The regulations said, "All persons applying for free service must bring a note, or other evidence, from some well-known citizen that their inability to pay does not arise from improvidence or dissipation."
Despite its cutting-edge amenities, the hospital engaged in selected practices that would seem barbarous today. On August 8, 1877, Mary Tait was brought in with two stab wounds in the abdomen. The woman was far advanced in her pregnancy. Two days later she delivered a still-born male child. The house surgeon and the deputy coroner autopsied the infant and ruled "its death was the result of the mother's injuries," according to The New York Times. Mary Tait was discharged from the hospital nearly two weeks later.
The keeper of the Morgue received a burial permit for the infant, and sent a request for the body to the New York Hospital. Losing patience, three days later he sent a wagon to retrieve the corpse. On August 26, The New York Times reported, "When Dan Russel, the driver of the wagon, called at the New-York Hospital, he was told by the clerk that he guessed the body had been thrown into the furnace." A reporter from the newspaper called upon Dr. Knight, the hospital surgeon who had helped in the autopsy. "The Doctor declared that he could not tell what had become of the child, but it was not at all improbable that it had been cremated. Supposing that it might have occurred, he could see nothing improper in it."
The New York Hospital continued to keep up with advancements. On Christmas Eve 1889, it became the first hospital in the city to be illuminated with electric lights. The New York Times wrote, "The New-York Hospital presented an extraordinary appearance last night for an institution with which bright and cheerful scenes are seldom associated...The whole building was lit up with incandescent electric lights." The change from gas to electricity went beyond mere modernity. The article explained:
Sanitary motives alone dictated the change, for it was thought that a better and more even temperature could be maintained and a less vitiated atmosphere be secured in the wards, where these are all important, than with the use of gas. There would be no consumption of the oxygen with the electric lights, as there had always been with gaslights, and so the change was made.
The lighting was intensified in the operating rooms by "movable reflectors." They enabled surgeons to operate at any hour of the night with the same brilliance as during the day.
Following disasters, the doctors and nurses of the New York Hospital flew into emergency mode. Such was the case on May 27, 1902 when throngs lined Fifth Avenue to view a parade for the French delegation to celebrate Rochambeau Day. More than 100 persons crowded onto a temporary wooden sidewalk bridge over a half-block-long excavation. Their weight was too great, and it collapsed, plummeting them 20 feet onto jagged rocks and wooden beams. The New-York Tribune reported that surgeons from the New York Hospital rushed to the scene to treat the injured on site.
Three years later, on January 7, 1905, a disaster occurred at the Metropolitan Opera House. The New-York Tribune reported, "With a crash which brought most of the audience of the Metropolitan Opera House to their feet in alarm, a stage bridge, part of the scenery of the first act of "Carmen," collapsed suddenly last night, throwing fifteen members of the chorus to the stage." Doctors at the New York Hospital were shortly treating members of the cast, dressed in their operatic costumes.
On May 8, 1927, The New York Times encapsulated the contributions of the New York Hospital, saying:
It has been active in the care of sick and wounded in all the wars in which the country has been engaged. It took part in checking the typhoid epidemics at some of the camps during the Spanish War, and in the World War it maintained at Chateauroux United States Base Hospital No. 9, caring for 15,000 cases...Peace-time epidemics, from the early days of yellow fever and cholera down to the more recent one of infantile paralysis and influenza, have also been kept in check and investigated.
At the time of the article, the days of the venerable structure were numbered. On February 6, 1929, The New York Times reported, "The New York Hospital and Cornell Medical College are creating a new medical centre on land fronting on the East River between Sixty-eighth and Seventieth Streets." The cornerstone of the new New York Hospital and Cornell Medical College (which would eventually become the Weill Cornell Medical Center), was laid on June 12, 1930.
The old New York Hospital was replaced by a three-story apartment building, completed in 1935. That was demolished for the 12-story Chelsea Lane Apartments, completed in 1964.
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