Monday, September 1, 2014

The Lost Hahnemann Hospital -- Park Ave and 67th Street

A turn of the century postcard shows a tree-planted boulevard on Park Avenue.  The hospital's "outdoor cottage" can be seen at right.
In the 18th century nearly as many patients died of medical treatment or the infection resulting from operations as did they from disease.  The situation prompted famed British surgeon Sir Astley Cooper to announce “The science of medicine was founded on conjecture and improved by murder.”

Leipzig physician Samuel Hahnemann took a different path from established medical practices when he founded the system of homeopathy in 1796.  He stressed the importance of proper diet, exercise, improved hygiene and removing stress—ideals familiar in the 21st century.

Hahnemann Homeopathic Hospitals would appear in many of America’s major cities—Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago among them.  New York City’s Hahnemann Hospital was incorporated early in the fall of 1869.  While it waited for a permanent structure, it used a rented house at No. 307 East 55th Street as its hospital. 

The Hahenemann was a “free bed” hospital—meaning that those who could not afford care were treated as charity cases.  During its first year the hospital treated 40 patients; only one of which paid.

At the time Fourth Avenue above the Grand Central Depot was an edgy neighborhood of small butcher shops, groceries, unimpressive houses and train tracks that clattered down the center of the thoroughfare.  In 1870 the Hahnemann Hospital secured a lease from the city of twelve buildings lots for the term of 99 years stretching the entire block from 67th to 68th Street on the east side.  The Legislature granted the facility $20,000 toward construction of its buildings, on the condition that Hahnemann Hospital could raise an equal amount.

Like churches, privately-run hospitals used fairs and bazaars as a primary means of fund-raising.  The directors of the hospital went directly to the doors of the wealthy, as well, to secure donations.  By 1872 $15,000 had been raised and plans were in the works for the new structure.

John Francis Richmond, in his 1872 New York and its Institutions, described the projected hospital.  “The new structures will consist of a fine administration building, fronting on Fourth avenue, and of two fine pavilions extending one hundred and twenty-five feet along Sixty-seventh and Sixty-eighth streets.  The entire front on Fourth avenue will be two hundred feet ten inches.  The pavilions, besides high basement, will have two stories each, and a Mansard story, will accommodate one hundred and seventy-five patients, giving over 1,300 cubic feet of space to each.”  The cost of the completed complex was estimated at about $200,000—around $3.7 million today.

The planned buildings were badly needed.  By the time of Richmond’s description, the Hahnemann Hospital had treated over 40,000 patients and another 2,000 calls had been made by visiting physicians.

As later explained by hospital president Hiram Calkins (who, in an interesting side note, was present at the death of President Lincoln), with “the liberal contributions of the patrons of Homeopathy and a large sum raised at a fair, the construction of the Hahnemann Hospital on its lots was commenced in 1876.”  The cornerstone laying ceremony, conducted on October 25, 1876 was, as The New York Times described it, “according to the elaborate and impressive forms of Masonry.”

The complex and mysterious Masonic rites were completed when the Grand Marshall declared the stone “had been found square, level and plumb, true and trusty, and laid according to the old customs of Masonry,” said The New York Times.  Grand Master Ellwood E. Thorne explained “that from time immemorial it had been the custom of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons to lay, when requested, the cornerstones of buildings erected for the worship of God, for charitable objects, or for the administration of justice and free government, but of no other building.”

William Cullen Bryant spoke at the ceremony, saying that of all modes of charitable relief, the support of public hospitals was one of the worthiest and most necessary.

Even as the construction of the new structure neared completion, the ladies of the hospital kept up their fund-raising—now to procure the money to furnish it.  One event was held on April 26, 1877 when they hosted a “coffee party” in the 22nd Regiment Armory on 14th Street at 6th Avenue.  In addition to two hours of special entertainment for children in the afternoon, “good music will be provided, and from 8 to 12 o’clock there will be dancing for those who desire to participate in it,” reported The Times.  The newspaper noted that the funds go “to furnish the new hospital building on Fourth-avenue…which is now nearly finished, and which is entirely free from debt in every other respect.”

The following year, in October 1878, the hospital opened its doors to patients.  The bulk of the brick cube was largely unornamented.  A stone portico with Doric columns opened onto Fourth avenue (later renamed Park Avenue) and stone accents highlighted the openings.  But above the third floor cornice an impressive mansard level rescued the structure from mediocrity.  Severely angular and notably tall, its corner towers tapered upward.  Handsome dormers lined up around the roofline and especially high iron cresting capped the corners.

Additions to the main building quickly followed—first by an annex to the east, then by the construction in the side yard of a “cottage for a special class of surgical cases,” as described by Calkins later.  By the 1890s the cottage was being used for the Out-Door Department, “where a large number of the sick poor daily receive treatment and obtain relief,” reported The Medical Times in 1895.

Construction required more fund-raising and on April 21, 1880 the Hospital leased the old Madison Square Garden for a charity ball and art auction.  The cream of New York society was there and the following day The New York Times reported that “A pianoforte was playing a lively waltz, and among the dancers were persons well known in New-York society…In the Garden proper about 2,000 persons were about the various stalls of the Hanemann Fair, and numerous detectives from the Central Office and the Twenty-ninth Precinct kept watch.”  Children were enjoying a Punch and Judy show in one room.  And then the unthinkable happened.

Around 9:00 Mr. Story, who was in charge of the Art Gallery, noticed that pieces of plaster were frequently falling from the ceiling, accompanied by cracking noises.  He mentioned this to Detective Tilley and the pair decided it would be prudent to evacuate the gallery.  To avoid panic, the guests viewing the artwork were told that the heat in the room could be injurious to the paintings, so the gas was being turned off and the gallery closed.

The viewers left slowly as Story turned down the gaslights.  Just as the last one left a huge chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling—about 18 inches wide and several feet long.  Detective Tilley “saw what had fallen, and at that moment heard a frightful crackling noise all around him.  The ceiling appeared to open and then to slide toward the avenue, while the west wall tottered, gaped, and fell outward,” reported The Times the following morning.

Unaware, well-dressed couples continued to waltz in the dancing hall “until a few seconds before the second floor and the peaked roof with the tower fell into Madison-avenue.”  Two guests told a reporter “there was a puff, as of smoke, and a dull sound, as if an explosion had occurred, then crackling and groaning of wood and brick work.  Then the ceiling split, large pieces of plaster began to fall, and everything inclined toward the street; then came a terrible crash and the wall of the dancing-hall fell outward, and the sky and stars appeared.”

The Times reported “The immense throng on the main floor surged toward the Madison-avenue exit, over which bricks, plaster, and timbers were still falling.  A terrible crush occurred in the vestibule, and it seemed likely that a terrible panic was going to take place, and that many persons would be crushed to death.”

One young man clambered over the rubble and picked up a pair of cymbals, crashing them together to get the crowd’s attention.  He hollered for order.  “In the meantime the fear of the musicians had been allayed, and they were induced to play ‘Yankee Doodle,’” said The Times.  “The music stilled the crowd, and they left the building in comparatively good order.”

When the collapse seemed to have halted, “dozens of young men, fashionably dressed, began to explore the ruins up stairs a few seconds after the accident, in a stifling dust.  At least half a dozen persons were helped out of the wreck within a minute after the time of the falling of the walls.”  Tragically, not everyone emerged alive.  When it was all over the northwestern tower, the art gallery, the dancing hall and part of the restaurant lay in a pile on the street and three women were dead.  An injured man died later.

On May 3 the “grand fair” was reopened at the 22nd Regiment Armory.  Amazingly, some of the paintings on sale at the Madison Square Garden fair had been recovered, restored, and now hung here.  The high-tone nature of the fair was evident in the articles offered to donors.  “There are 80 valuable articles yet to be disposed of by subscription votes,” said The Times the day after the reopening, “including diamonds, pianos, a magnificent doll, with diamond jewelry, and a tiny wardrobe of 12 handsome dresses; an elegant satin quilt, an artistic screen, a very fine bicycle, oil-paintings, and a large quantity of silverware, besides many other articles of value.”  The newspaper noted that General Grant had outbid all competitors for a gold-headed cane.

Meanwhile, treatment of patients went on in the Hahnemann Hospital.  A peculiar set of circumstances surrounded the case of Mrs. Arthur Bloodgood in 1884.  The woman’s condition had deteriorated to the point that she was unable to move from a chair and her niece sat with her day and night.  Her physician informed her “that the only possible chance of her recovery would be a trip to California,” according to a newspaper.

The problem for the woman who now had her hopes for survival hinging on a West Coast trip, was that she was embattled in a divorce proceeding and had no money.  Her alimony case was tied up in litigation and “In the meantime she remains in a helpless condition at the Hahnemann Hospital.  She recently applied to her brother for assistance, and that gentleman sent her money enough to pay her car fare to California.  It is stated that each day renders her chance of recovery less possible,” said The Times on April 15 1884.

The newspaper explained part of the problem.  “Arthur Bloodgood, the husband,…is also a helpless invalid in Hahnemann Hospital.”

In 1889 plans were being discussed for a new, state of the art maternity building.  On March 21 that year The Evening World reported on the upcoming Centennial Festival for the benefit of the new facility.  “The affair promises to be one of unusual excellence, and a variety of attractions will be offered, including entertainments and performances during the afternoons and evenings.  A notable feature will be a ‘Martha Washington Drawing-Room,’ which will contain a collection of Revolutionary relics.”

The festival opened in May and featured a Russian tearoom where tea was served by girls wearing quaint Russian costumes, and the Martha Washington room furnished in 18th century antiques, including the chair Washington used at his inauguration.  A $4,000 punch bowl had been donated to be awarded to the most popular club in the city, as voted on by festival patrons.

By the time of this turn of the century postcard, additions to the north had been completed.  The cottage is now-vine covered.

The Egbert Guernsey Maternity and Children’s Ward was opened on December 18, 1894.  The $68,000 building (exclusive of land and furnishings) was the last word in modern facilities.  There were comfortable private rooms, bathrooms, and windows on four sides.  “Four private rooms have been daintily and completely furnished by Mrs. Guernsey, Mrs. G. W. Powers, Mrs. J. Neilson Stout, and Mrs. Ralph Trautman, with pretty rugs, draperies, pictures and bed furnishings,” said The Times.  “The color tones…are pink, white, yellow, and blue.  The rooms called forth many expressions of admiration from the visitors.”

The obstetric ward and a private room of the new 1894 Maternity Ward are surprisingly modern-looking.  photos from The New York Medical Times, January 1895 (copyright expired)
In 1905 The New York Charities Directory pointed out that the hospital accepted no contagious cases.  For those patients “in moderate circumstances” $7 per week was charged.  Private rooms for paying patients ranged from $12 to $50 per week—the latter amount translating to about $1200 today.  As always, those who were indigent were admitted and treated for free.  The figures put forth by the directory showed a marked change in charity-versus-paying patients over the years.  In 1901-1902, 997 patients were treated of which 683 paid in full and 29 made “small payments.” 

Some of the staff pose for a Byron Co. photographer in 1905.  Presumably the kitten was not on payroll -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The hospital was pulled into a sordid public scandal in September 1913 when Dr. John Husson and his wife appeared in court regarding custody of their 4-year old son.  The boy had survived with two broken vertebrae in his neck since a fall at the age of 18 months.  Dr. Husson pleaded that “only delicate and interested treatment will preserve his life.”

But the case earned lurid press coverage because Jennie Husson had earlier sued socialite Mrs. Louise Riddell Park for $5,000 damages for alienating the affections of her husband.  In addition to charging infidelity Jennie declared, according to The Evening World, “that her husband assaulted and struck her on Aug. 24 and told her that it ‘was only a light sample of what he proposed to give to her if she did not leave his household.’”

Husson, who was 20 years older than his wife, said he was merely trying to subdue his jealous wife during a fit of rage.  He explained that her out-of-control jealousy had damaged his practice.  Patients stayed away because “his wife was in the habit of calling at his office while he was treating patients and looking through the key hole.”

The hospital's kitchen as photographed by Wurts Bros. on February 1, 1917 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On June 13, 1917 the Medical Record announced that the City of New York had sold the land occupied by Park Avenue land to the hospital for $100,000.  By now the Park Avenue train tracks had been lowered and covered over by a landscaped boulevard.  Mansions—like the grand Percy Rivington Pyne residence directly across the avenue—were rapidly replacing the older structures.  The value of the Hahnemann Hospital land had risen to $775,000.

In 1905 surgeons operate on a patient.  Rubber gloves, masks and hairnets are already in practice -- photo by Byron Co., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Now that it owned the land, the Hospital directors knew exactly what to do—sell it.  On July 27, 1919 The Times reported “In a transaction involving about $2,000,000 the Hahnemann Hospital completed the sale of its property yesterday on the east side of Park Avenue, between Sixty-seventh and Sixty-eighth Streets, and purchased as a site for a new group of buildings the block front on Fifth Avenue between 105th and 106th Streets.”

The newspaper noted that the Park Avenue site, “one of the finest of the new large plots left on Park Avenue for residential development…is surrounded by some of the finest mansions in the city.”  The land had been purchased by a syndicate and “it will be developed in the near future with residences in keeping with the new house planned by Harold I. Pratt for the opposite corner of Sixty-eight Street, and the residences of Percy R. Pyne, H. R. Davidson, William Sloane, Arthur Curtiss James, the twin houses of the Redmonds, George Blumenthal, and the two Brewsters.”

Although the syndicate, headed by Douglas L. Elliman originally intended that the private homes of millionaires would rise on the site; the idea was scrapped in favor of a 10-story apartment building with a garden courtyard.  Designed by James E. R. Carpenter and Mott B. Schmidt, the handsome structure was completed in 1924.
Carpenter's and Schmidt's 1924 block-engulfing building still stands.  photo by

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