Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The 1894 House of Relief -- Nos. 67-69 Hudson St.

photo by Alice Lum

In 1771 the New York Hospital was established on Broadway opposite Pearl Street when the area was essentially still residential.  Nearly a century later, in 1869, it followed the northward tide of homes and relocated to West 15th Street.   The move ensured that citizens in the Union Square and Bond Street areas would have a nearby medical facility; but it left the downtown area without one.  The Sun later reported that “there was much solicitude lest the lower part of the city should be left without hospital facilities.”

The Police Commissioners offered an old police station at 160 Chambers Street for the hospital to use as an emergency facility.  Called the House of Relief, or the Chambers Street Hospital, it opened in 1875 and offered free services in which was now a commercial and often gritty neighborhood.

On November 8, 1894, The New York Times recalled that “Few institutions of the kind in the country have become as famous as the old Chambers Street Hospital.  Cases by the thousand have been treated there.  Bridge jumpers, attempted suicides, victims of the Russell Sage bomb thrower, victims of would-be murders, accident cases, and thousands of patients whose cases have not called for newspaper attention have passed through its doors.  Columns have been written in a critical way about the alleged brutal conduct of the ambulance surgeons, and words of praise have been bestowed upon the physicians in charge.”

By 1893 there was a desperate need for a new building downtown.  That year the ambulance department responded to 2,844 calls—twice as many as the New York Hospital proper.   The out-patient department treated 22,555 patients while 2,339 others were housed in the wards.   The Chambers Street building—never intended to be a hospital—was thirty years old and showing its age.

The Sun called the old building “homely” and “barrack-like” and The New York Times said it was “wholly unsuited to its purposes” and “dirty and cramped.”   The Governors of New York Hospital began construction on a new House of Relief, alternately called the Hudson Street Hospital, in 1893.

Situated at 67 to 69 Hudson Street at the corner of Jay Street, it was designed by Cady, Berg & See.   Costing $300,000 (about $7 million in 2013), the five story brick structure was not only a state of the art medical facility, it was an architectural beauty.  As it neared completion on July 29, 1894 The Sun remarked “Architecturally it is a pleasing contrast to the great brick mercantile structures of no particular beauty in that busy part of the city.  Its exterior presents a clean-cut appearance, relieved a bit by the arched windows of the basement floor, the neat balconies, one on each face, and the graceful main entrance with its Roman arch of red sandstone and supporting Greek pillars of the same material.”

The Sun published a sketch of the new structure on July 29, 1894 (copyright expired)

Adding drama to the design was a double entrance staircase leading to the centered entrance.  The New York Times deemed the structure “handsome and commodious” and “an ornament to the neighborhood.”
Outpatients entered the high-ceilinged main reception room faced with Tennessee marble and cherry woodwork.  “It is as light and clean as newly laundered linen,” reported The Sun.   Lighting was provided by both electricity and gas.
Citizens in layers of Victorian clothing suffered in the summer heat.  Among the innovative features of the new hospital was the sunstroke ward.  The Sun reported that when a patient was received, “he will be wheeled to the entrance of the ward.  There he will be transferred to a net swinging by four chains from an overhead railway attached to the ceiling.  Then, he will be railroaded to the cold bath or the cold spray.  If to the latter all clothing will be stripped from him and he will enjoy a cooling spray over the body.  After he has received due treatment in the ward he will be taken by the elevator to a roofed enclosure, open to the breezes on all four sides, on the top of the building.”

A patient is treated at the innovative Sunstroke Ward -- The New York Times April 25, 1895 (copyright expired)

The newspaper assumed that if the elaborate treatment failed, it was not the fault of the hospital.  “After all this luxurious treatment, if the patient doesn’t get well it may be supposed to be his own fault and not due to the inefficiency of science.”

Male and female wards were separated for decency’s sake.  On the third floor was a private ward “for distinguished patients.”  That floor also included the main operating room, etherizing room and a matron’s room.
Exceptionally handsome ironwork leads to the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum

Up-to-date technology ruled the fourth floor.  Here was the kitchen, the laundry, the refrigerating room and rooms for “the female help.”  According to The Sun “The laundry work will be done according to the most improved methods.  The washing machines will be turned by electricity, and the linen will all be ironed by flat-irons, which receive their motive power direct from an electric motor by means of wire attached to the handles.  Ironing here will assume some of the characteristics of a fine art, the attention of the operating being confined entirely to the skillful guiding and not the propelling of the iron.  The clothes will be dried in a special drying room.”

The hospital boasted central heating by means of registers in the ceilings and floors.  The New York Times said “The system to supply fresh air in the rooms at any temperature is admirable,” and The Sun wrote “So effective is the heating and ventilating apparatus that the entire supply of air in the rooms can be changed in from four to sixteen minutes.”  The Sun pronounced that “With these and other features the hospital authorities believe they have the finest hospital in the city.”

Lion heads decorate the metal cornice.  Note the added touch of the blind arch in the brickwork of the chimney.  photo by Alice Lum

At 10:00 on the night of Tuesday November 6, 1894 the old House of Relief on Chambers Street treated its last patient—James A. Leonard, a 33-year old barkeeper who arrived with a scalp wound.  The first case to walk in the door of the new hospital on Hudson Street was 9-year old Dominick Zizto, a newsboy who had fractured his wrist.

Six months after Dominick’s broken wrist the hospital was buzzing with activity.  The New York Times wrote on April 25, 1895 “The Governors of the [New York Hospital Society] call especial attention to the fact that this institution is situated in the down-town section of the city, in the neighborhood of wharves, ferries, and crowded streets, and in the midst of traffic, where casualties are frequent.”  The New-York Tribune reported that month that the hospital’s ambulances had responded to 2,812 ambulance calls already.

Ambulances accessed the hospital through the elaborate iron gates to the side.  In 1907 the brick house, seen in the shadows behind the hospital, would be razed for a modern ambulance stables and laundry facility -- photo by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1G31WP45&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

The cases that walked or were wheeled through the doors of the House of Relief reflected the sometimes dangerous neighborhood.  Such was the case on November 27, 1897 when Henry Levy, a shoemaker at 49 Bayard Street, tried to break up a confrontation between two customers over a $2 debt one owed the other.

The two men turned their aggression on Levy.  One “whipped out a penknife and stabbed the little cobbler nine times in the face and head, while the other workmen stood by too transfixed with terror to help him,” reported The New York Times.  The newspaper said that the assault “resulted in his being taken to the House of Relief on Hudson Street, and being so swathed in bandages that his head looked like a snowball, animated by a pair of human eyes.”

The reporter assumed that the incident “will probably lead him to summon the police the next time a fight is started in a room he happens to be in.”
To accommodate the rather unsightly fire escape, the cast iron balcony on the Hudson Street facade was lost -- photo by Alice Lum

A peculiar case was that of Thomas Donohue who had crawled into a “sawdust box” on the Barclay Street freight pier the night of August 27, 1902.  He was noticed by Foreman Murphy sleeping on the pier around 1:00 the following day and ordered to move.  “Later Murphy again saw the man when his attention was called to his presence on the stringpiece by Gateman Whalen.  Whalen then summoned Policeman Foley and instructed him to remove the stranger,” reported The Evening World.

Officer Foley roused Donohue “who with great difficulty struggled to his feet and walked north about a hundred feet, when he sat down in a secluded spot.  No further attention was paid to him,” said the newspaper.  The Evening World openly wondered why the policeman did not seek medical attention for the man.

Late that night, Foreman Murphy heard groans and again found Donohue in the same sawdust box.  This time the man was taken to the House of Relief where he died of starvation at 3:15 on the morning of August 29.  The irony of how Donahue had come to the last stages of starvation in a busy metropolitan area was not lost on The Evening World.  “He starved in a district which supplies Greater New York with its food products and from which thousands of tons of good things to eat are shipped daily.”

In the years just prior to World War I New York was in the grip of terrorists—anarchists and other social and political radicals.  Some of the victims ended up at the Hudson Street House of Relief.

On April 8, 1911 The New York Times recapped some of the incidents during the past year.  “On Jan. 8 a bomb exploded outside the door of the place occupied by Francisco Scupelito, and on April 28 there was another explosion.  On July 12 there was an explosion in front of Joseph Saraguse’s dairy, and on July 24 a bomb was set off in one of his milk wagons in a ferry boat returning from Jersey City.

“A three-pound explosive projectile burst yesterday while Carlo Verstraelin, 13 years old…was playing with it in front of his home.  It tore his right forearm and hand and cut and bruised his body, and cut the right leg of Sadie Schneider, 22 months old…whose body was lacerated also.  Both were taken to the House of Relief.”

Three months after the wounded children were brought in, the House of Relief was busy treating victims of a heat wave.  On July 6, 1911, 72 persons had died from the heat in New York City within the past four days, and there were at least 300 “prostrations.”  Temperatures lingered at above 100 degrees.

The New York Times reported that on July 5, although the temperature had cooled to “a maximum of 92 degrees” the “suffering in the street level was more intense.  All day long and throughout the night the ambulances raced up and down, responding to twice as many calls as on any day previous.”

Doctors and nurses at the Hudson Street Hospital attended to a steady stream of victims who collapsed in the street—among them laborer William Longe who had been working in an excavation at Canal Street and West Broadway; Norva Gray who dropped to the pavement at Broadway and Fulton Street; Joseph Buchanan, a 28-year-old chauffeur “overcome in front of 11 Pine Street;” and 45-year-old engineer William Brockway who fainted at 119 Nassau Street.

The horse-drawn ambulances that rushed to their aid were dispatched from the hospital’s annex built in 1907.  Located directly behind the hospital, at the corner of Jay and Staple Streets, the $40,000 building served not only as a stable and ambulance garage; but the laundry facilities were housed upstairs, connected to the main building by a street bridge across Staple Street.

One of the most colorful patients in the hospital was Charles “Chuck” Connors.  A well-known figure in the Chinatown and Bowery area, he was memorialized “in song and on the stage,” according to The New York Times in 1913.  Connors acted as a self-appointed tour guide through the seedy and mysterious neighborhoods for uptown residents and tourists.  The Times said “In his role as guide ‘Chuck’ put on his toughest manners and talked Bowery argot for the benefit of his out-of-town clients.  In private life he was just picturesquely illiterate.  He came to be known as the ‘Mayor of Chinatown,” and none knew the quarter as well as he.”
The Chinese residents, the police, and the missionaries of the slum neighborhoods knew and liked him.  The Chinese “profited with him in exploiting spurious opium dens and other haunts staged for the sole benefit of visitors.”  Connors was credited with inventing the slang associated with the Bowery area.
Connors’ first wife, Nellie, died in 1905 and when his second wife, Rosie, died around 1911 “Church withdrew to his humble home and infrequently returned to his old haunts,” said The New York Times on May 11, 1913.
His “humble home” was a three-room apartment on Doyer Street that had been furnished and maintained for him during his life by a provision by Richard K. Fox.  On May 10, 1913 he told the old black woman, Mrs. Chin, who took care of him “I’m not good for many more days.”  The woman called several of his friends who surrounded his bedside.
“If I’m going to cash in, let it be here in Chinatown,” he whispered.
Dr. Shields was summoned from the House of Relief.  Connors was suffering from pneumonia and was taken to the hospital; but he lingered only a few hours after arriving.  The New York Times reported that “Arrangements for an elaborate funeral are being made by the Chinese merchants of the quarter.”
With the United States' entrance into the war, the government took over the House of Relief in 1918.  On March 14 the New-York Tribune reported that “The United States government has taken over the Hudson Street Hospital for military patients…Announcement was made that ambulance service from the hospital would be discontinued to-day.  Patients now there will be transferred to Bellevue and Flower hospitals.”

Although painted green, the architectural elements executed in brick are still clearly evident -- photo by Alice Lum

The New York Times explained the new function of the hospital.  “The plan of both the army and navy, as it is understood here, is to bring men back to this country if they are injured or so ill that their recovery is a matter of a long time.  In this way the medical facilities abroad can be devoted to acute cases with prospects of rapid recovery, and men who either are to be under long care or who must be discharged from the service when convalescence is complete can be taken out of the way.”

In 1920, the Annual Report of the New York Board of Social Welfare noted that “On May 1, 1918, this branch hospital was closed to civilians; none but sailors admitted since.”

Many of the wounded were not bedridden and the Red Cross thought it would be nice for them to see a bit of Manhattan before being discharged and sent elsewhere.  On April 1, 1919 The Sun reported “An appeal to automobile owners to take wounded soldiers for outings each afternoon between 2 and 5 o’clock was issued yesterday…Many of the men are in town just a week before being sent to camps elsewhere, and only by such rides as requested can they see anything of New York.”

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s the old House of Relief was called “The United States Marine Hospital.”  In 1975 it was renovated for private medical offices, and a decade later was converted to residential use.

The brick façade has been inexplicably painted green and an unfortunate fire escape mars the Hudson Street façade.  But the handsome former hospital is still a commanding corner presence in a much changed neighborhood.


  1. At least the cornice has not been ripped off, but what an ugly solution to locate the fire escape straight across the front entry vestibule. Any info on the wonderful dutch gabled building adjoining this structure?

    1. Watch closely -- the post on the Flemish Revival building is coming in the next week or so.

  2. Another one I'd been wondering about. I also appreciate the pre-fire escape pics.

  3. Hello Tom, I'm enjoying catching up on your older posts when I did a goggle street view of this building and it shows a cool looking pedestrian sky bridge that connects to the once ambulance stables and laundry facility building mentioned in the 1907 photograph. Do you have any information on it? Whatever the outcome I'm glad it's still there. Thank you.

    1. The bridge connected the two buildings so workers did not have to lug laundry, etc. to street level and back up again. (The bridge is mentioned in the story above, by the way.) It was constructed simultaneously as a brilliant means of efficienciently moving people and things back and forth.

      Glad you enjoy the post. Several readers mention "walking" around the buildings on Google and I love that!