Monday, May 16, 2011

The 1884 German Dispensary (Ottendorfer Clinic) - No. 137 2nd Avenue

photo by Alice Lum

In 1854 the German Society attempted to establish a facility to care for German immigrants who could not afford to pay for health care. A small dispensary was formed, although the cost of its maintenance kept it teetering on the edge of extinction.

Finally, in 1861, with the help of wealthy philanthropists like August Belmont and dozens of successful German-born businessmen, the institution was incorporated and five years later became the German Hospital and Dispensary of the City of New York (later to become Lenox Hill Hospital).

Anna Ottendorfer, the wife of one of the hospital’s most active donors, Oswald Ottendorfer, took on medical care for the indigent German population as a passionate cause.  In 1880 she gave $68,000 for the construction of a wing devoted to women.

Anna Ottendorfer then turned her sights to establishing a dispensary in the Lower East Side district known as Kleindeutchland–or Little Germany.  In 1883 hired German-born architect William Schickel to design the structure.  He produced a robust Italian Renaissance building faced in red Philadelphia pressed brick and terra-cotta at 137 Second Avenue–one which, over a century later, the AIA Guide to New York City would call “simultaneously somber and exuberant in its rich molded red-brick and terra-cotta dress.”

Simultaneously, Oswald Ottendorfer had William Schikel design an abutting, nearly matching but less extroverted library building at 135 Second Avenue.

The facade is frosted with exuberant terra cotta ornamentation, including extraordinary portrait busts -- photo by Alice Lum

Schickel placed a dramatic portico at the entrance, laden with terra cotta ornamentation including busts of the Greek physician Galen; Celsius, the Roman medical writer; Asklepius, the Greek god of medicine, and the Greek physician, Hippocrates.  Beneath the cornice an elaborate terra cotta frieze incorporated busts of more modern medical figures: British physiologist William Harvey; Swedish biologist Carl von Linne; German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt; and Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, German physician.

photo by Alice Lum

A vestibule just inside of the entrance doors was lighted by two skylights extending the entire length. On either side were the dispensary and a reception room for visitors.  The second floor housed treatment rooms and above were apartments for the surgeons and attendants.

The German Dispensary cost Anna Ottendorfer $140,000.  As the structure rose, her health failed.  She died in 1884, just prior to the building’s opening.  In her will she bequeathed another $10,000 to the German Society for medical help to the poor.  The building was dedicated on May 24, 1884 in an impressive ceremony that included music by the Liederkranz Quarter and “a long speech” by Dr. A. Jacobi who instructed those gathered on the history of medicine.

In February 1905, as the uptown Yorkville community of Germans developed, the dispensary moved closer to the German Hospital which was located between Park and Lexington Avenues, from 76th to 77th Streets. The Second Avenue building was sold to the Deutsche Poliklinik, previously operating at 78 East 7th Street, which also catered to the medical needs of poor German immigrants. A year later the Poliklinik repaired the aging structure.

With the flurry of American patriotism and anti-German sentiment that accompanied the onset of World War I, the facility temporarily changed its name to the Stuyvesant Polyclinic. When the same problem arose during World War II, the name was changed permanently.

In the 1970's the clinic became affiliated with the Cabrini Medical Center and, while no longer free, was serving 2,800 patients in 1978 and around 35,000 in 1983. That year the exterior of the building was restored; however the interior spaces remained severely modernized.

The Cabrini Stuyvesant Polyclinic moved out in August of 2006 and the landmarked building sat empty for two years.  In 2008 it was placed on the market for $13 million.
When the British business strategy firm with the unusual name ?What If! purchased the former clinic, it commissioned architects David Mayerfield Associates to restore both the interior and exterior.

When dropped ceilings in the main hall were removed, the 1884 skylights, blacked out in World War II, were rediscovered.  Similarly, stained glass panels in the ceiling of the staircase were uncovered.  The colorful encaustic tile floors had been covered over with concrete which was meticulously scraped away.

The lobby staircase with marble wainscoting, prior to restoration.  Photo Curbed New York 

The staircase on the upper floors had been enclosed and removal of the walls exposed the beautiful cast iron railings and columns.

The encaustic tile floors and the ornate iron staircase on the upper floors were uncovered in the restoration -- photo Bonnie Rosenstock, The Villager

Mayerfield not only took the historic building back to its original appearance, but brought it up to date as well, focusing on environmentally-friendly installations whenever possible.
The German Dispensary building and the accompanying Ottendorfer Library were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. You may have just answered one of my family history mysteries. My German-born Gr-gr-grandfather was an MD who was living in this part of NYC in 1884 (naturalization papers), and I've always wondered where he might have worked, why he was living there rather than with his wife and children in Bayside. From 1904 until his death in 1915 he worked in a TB sanitorium somewhere, but family story is that he doctored to the indigent.

    Seems possible that this is where he was doing whatever he was doing in the mid-late 1880s. Interesting! Thank you so much for the information!

  2. I have a medal that was given July 4-5 1886 that is inscribed with the name of this hospital and dispensary. The medal is for a national festival sharp shooter event. I would love to know more about that if you have any info. I am happy to send a pic as well,

    1. German immigrants formed several shooting clubs, or Schuetzen Gesellshafts, during that period. Shooting contests were a popular recreation among the German community. It appears that the dispensary either hosted a tournament, or sponsored a prize, resulting in the medal you have.