|photo by Alice Lum|
When the immensely wealthy James Henry Roosevelt died in 1863, he left $1 million to establish a hospital “for the reception and relief of sick and diseased persons.” It was a staggering amount of money.
The new Roosevelt Hospital purchased its building site in 1866 between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, from 58th to 59th Streets, well north of the established city. In this sparsely-developed area land was much more affordable.
As plans for the new hospital were discussed, the trustees opted for the “pavilion plan” that had been devised in France. The concept was to inhibit the growth and spread of infection and disease by reducing stale air and dirt. It was believed that proper ventilation and ample sunlight would disperse the harmful elements.
Therefore small hospital buildings, or pavilions, rather than a single bulky edifice were considered more scientifically healthful. By 1872 three pavilions, all in the Victorian Gothic style and designed by Carl Pfeiffer, had been completed.
Fate would change the future of Roosevelt Hospital when multimillionaire William J. Syms became ill.
Syms was an iconic 19th century tycoon who increased his fortune with every new enterprise. Spreading his interests among diverse industries, he founded both the Metropolitan Gas Company and the Forty-second and Grand Street Railroad Company. He was President of the Franklin Telegraph Company, Vice-President of the Atlantic And Pacific Telegraph Company and a partner in the largest gun maker and dealer in New York, Blunt & Syms. Syms, his wife Catherine and their adopted daughter, Frances Mary, lived in a mansion at 477 Fifth Avenue.
Dr. Charles McBurney was “attending surgeon” at Roosevelt Hospital at the time and treated Syms who was more than happy to recover. In payment for the doctor’s $300 bill, the millionaire sent back a check for $3000, which Dr. McBurney promptly returned. But Syms never forgot.
William J. Syms died in 1889 and on April 19 his will was probated. The New York Times reported that “the Roosevelt Hospital will receive $350,000. Of that amount $250,000 is to be used in the erection of a surgical operating theatre, at the easterly end of the lot on which the hospital stands. The theatre is to be under the direction of Dr. Charles McBurney, and to be called the ‘William J. Syms Operating Theatre of Roosevelt Hospital.’ The remaining $100,000 is to be invested and the income applied to the expenses of the operating theatre.”
The gift was not totally humanitarian. Syms wanted the building to be “an enduring monument to himself” as well as of “great service to suffering humanity,” according to Harper’s Weekly.
Architect William Wheeler Smith was given the commission for the new structure. By November 2, 1890 work was well underway. The New York Times announced “The nearest approach to perfection in all that goes to bring about the results attainable by modern surgery will be made with the completion of the Syms Operating Theatre, upon which work is being rapidly pushed at Fifty-ninth Street and Ninth Avenue.”
The reason the operating theatre would be near to perfection, said the newspaper, was that “Dr. McBurney spent much time in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, filled with original ideas and anxious to glean the latest improvements in these surgical centres of the Old World.”
McBurney consulted with the architect and after three unsuccessful drafts, Smith came up with plans “that combined all the necessary features and were within the estimate.” To keep within “the estimate,” Smith had to forego any over-the-top architectural embellishment.
“All style and architectural feelings were sacrificed to the scientific demands, but the building, nevertheless, will be an ornament to its neighborhood,” said The New York Times.
|The building originally extended 17-feet further back -- photo by Alice Lum|
Smith's design called for a rather bulky, understated red Haverstraw brick Romanesque Revival structure three stories tall over a basement, with a tall, conical glass skylight. A four-foot dry moat surrounded the structure, assuring light, air and drainage.
To ensure cleanliness the floors were to be mosaic, “these being absolutely impervious;” and the walls were either marble-clad or of hard plaster. The ground-breaking design included facilities for preparing patients and disinfecting them, the doctors and the instruments after operations.
The operating arena was clad in Italian marble and could accommodate 184 students. The glass dome, 40 feet above the floor, provided natural lighting. There was no wood--a potential harbor for germs-- used in any section of the amphitheater.
The ultra-modern facility would include etherizing rooms, examination rooms, rooms for septic cases, rooms for quarantining dangerous cases, photographic rooms, a microscope room, instrument room, preparatory laboratory, and a room for preparing surgical dressings and bandages. The New York Times noted “Arrangements for the ventilation of the building will be elaborate and most complete.”
And then came the contesting of the will.
In March 1891, with construction well underway, Syms’ sister, Mary E. Serrell, protested that he was of unsound mind when he wrote the will and was under “undue influence.” Things ground to a halt on Tenth Avenue.
“When the contest of the will was started it became problematical whether the hospital would ever get the $350,000, so the work was stopped,” said The New York Times. The hospital had good reason to be worried. A reporter visiting that year said “The most noticeable feature of the [existing] surgical pavilion is its crowded condition. Every one of its thirty-six beds contains a patient.”
But by mid-July Serrell dropped her suit and construction was restarted. It was finally completed in 1892, about six month past the expected date. Harper’s Weekly called it “The finest structure in the world for surgical operations.”
As instructed by Sym’s will, Dr. McBurney headed the new surgical theater and, as the years progressed, the doctor’s reputation in the medical professional grew. Here he developed processes to perform appendectomies, he identified the “McBurney’s point," a focused site of tenderness and, in 1894, developed the muscle-splitting incision access. It was McBurney who first used the term appendicitis and, contrary to contemporary practice, urged the early removal of the appendix.
The Syms Operating Theater was still a world-renowned facility when, in 1909, 100 surgeons from foreign warships visited to observe about a dozen emergency operations performed under the direction of the then-head surgeon, Dr. George E. Brewer.
As the 20th century progressed, however, the importance of the building would wane. Although the Syms Theater received a facelift in 1934, it was upstaged in 1941 when a new Private Patients Pavilion was built with new, modern surgical areas. The Syms was used as a blood bank and mortuary for six years, then in 1948 became a temporary emergency room.
Things got worse for the old building in 1953. When the new Tower Building was built behind, over 17 feet of the rear of the building were removed to make way. Portions of the conical skylights were covered with copper and the interiors were gutted to provide space for the Department of Pathology.
|In the 1950s the skylight had been covered over with copper -- photo slrresearch.org|
Although the hospital repeatedly threatened to demolish the old Syms Operating Theatre, it never got around to it and in 1979 the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it a landmark. Shortly thereafter the hospital sold the east end of the block to developers.
The stocky little building became the focal point for two 49-story luxury apartment buildings. Restoration architect Walter Sedovich was hired who repaired the central skylight, original ground floor windows and the great red oak entrance doors. Salvage yards were searched to find just the right vintage bricks to replace lost or damaged ones.
In the meantime, architect Robert Crane, working on the two new structures, relied on the Syms building as his design theme. Granite courses, curved bricks and other detailing echo the architectural feeling of the operating theater.
After narrowly escaping demolition, the future of The William J. Syms Operating Theatre which was on the cutting edge of science and medicine when designed is now secure.
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