Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The 1902 Babies' Hospital -- 135 East 55th Street

In the early 1880s Julia G. McNutt and her sister, Sara, had highly unusual professions, at least for women.  They were doctors.   Sara later remembered the comments made by Dr. Blackwell, who advised “There are a great many women and children needing good medical and surgical care.”  He said that if she excelled in her work, “you will soon have so much to do that you will not have time to wonder if some one else does not approve of women physicians.”

For six years Sara worked with children and women, acutely aware that there were no special facilities for infants and toddlers in the city.  In 1887 she took steps to found the Babies’ Hospital of the City of New York.  “It was thought that I would be able to take the medical care with my sister, Dr. Julia G. McNutt’s help,” she later recalled.

The fledgling institution would quickly encounter resistance.  In November 1887, with the backing of wealthy New Yorkers like Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Ambrose C. Kingsland, Mrs. Abraham S. Hewitt and others, the four-story brownstone at the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 45th Street was purchased from “Mr. Gleason” for $26,000.  The handsome dwelling was described by the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide which said “It has a bay window on each story, and is handsomely finished in hardwood trim.”

But one neighbor on the upscale block was infuriated.  Thomas B. Gifford went to court, contending “that the hospital was a nuisance in the neighborhood occupied almost entirely by private families.”  He pointed out that children with contagious diseases would be a threat to the block’s residents.

On June 18, 1888 Judge Beach, seemingly begrudgingly, ruled in favor of Gifford.  He began saying “The hospital is not a nuisance prima facie;” but admitted “The care of children in numbers bring danger to the youthful members of families living near.”  Most importantly, there was a covenant in the deed that restricted the property to residential use only.

The officers of the hospital did not wait for Judge Beach’s decision.  Because “many applications have been made for the admission of children, owing to the hot weather, during which the infant mortality is abnormally high,” they rented a house at No. 161 East 36th Street.

It opened on June 16, 1888, two days before the court case ended.  There were 24 beds for the tiny patients.  Avoiding a second problem, the officers announced “that they do not intend to admit contagious dieaes, and ask for gifts of money and infants’ clothing.”

The McNutt sisters were unprepared for the response.  Sara told The Medical Record in December 1918, “The medical work, however, grew so rapidly, and encroached so much upon our private work, that we felt obliged to withdraw from the Babies’ Hospital a year after assisting in founding it.”

The hospital moved into two adjoining houses at the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 55th Street -- Directory of Social and Health Agencies of New York City, 1898 (copyright expired)

By 1891 the Hospital had moved to two four-story houses at No. 657 and 659 Lexington Avenue, at 55th Street.  Three years earlier Dr. Allan M. Thomas and Dr. William C. Denning had developed a three-foot by three-foot “hatching cradle"—the precursor of today’s incubator.  The Babies’ Hospital owned the now-improved model when a tiny premature infant was brought in in January 1891.

The boy was born two months early on December 21, 1890.  His mother died in childbirth.  Had he been brought immediately to the Hospital, his chances would have been greatly improved.  But a well-meaning neighbor woman tried to nurture him for four weeks.  The New York Times advised “When she turned him over to the Babies’ Hospital he weighed but three pounds and was terribly emaciated.  It was decided at once that there was but one way to save the little fellow’s life, and that that was to put him into an incubator.”

The prognosis was cautiously optimistic.  The newspaper said on February 1, “It seems almost too much to believe, but there is a probability that the helpless, pitiable atom in the box may develop into a strong, handsome man.  The nurse says that her charge may some day be President of the United States.”

The Hospital’s valiant attempts proved futile.  Three days later the funeral of Baby Johnson, deemed by The Times “a mite of humanity,” was held in his father’s home on West 60th Street.

Two weeks later Nell Nelson, writing for The Evening World, described the hospital.  “The ‘Babies’ Hospital of the City of New York’ is the only institution of its kind in the country, and as far as can be ascertained it is the only one in the world that is reserved for the exclusive accommodation of babies.”

Of the 214 babies that were admitted in 1890, 57 died.  Often the condition of the infants was such that there was no hope of survival when they arrived.  Nelson reported that on the day she arrived there were four “little Dutch cradles” in a bay window, one of which was empty.  That child’s body had just been removed.  She asked the nurse about the remaining three patients.

“Marasmus, and they cannot live.”

She was informed that another name for marasmus was “starvation.”  Further investigation explained the plights of the urchins.  In 23 cases the father was unemployed; in five he was sick or hospitalized; “in one case the father was in prison; in fifteen cases the mother was deserted by the father.”  Two mothers were insane; in six cases the mothers were dead and in another six cases she was too sick to care for the child.

The stifling heat of summer worsened the chances of the babies’ survival.  And so by the summer of 1894 the hospital acquired three cottages at Oceanic, New Jersey.   On July 14 that year The New York Times reported “The Babies’ Hospital, at 657 Lexington Avenue, has a deserted appearance.  There are reminiscences of babies everywhere in rows of little empty cribs, some of them with tiny baby caps, little gowns, and shoes lying around them, but not a baby is to be seen anywhere about the house.”

The entire population of the hospital had been removed to the cottages, “comfortable, sunny, and spacious, [where] the babies grow well and rosy under the influences of fresh air, skillful treatment, and nourishing food.”

The demand for admissions far exceeded the facilities of the old brownstone houses.  In 1901 the architectural firm of York & Sawyer was given the commission to replace the property with a modern hospital building.  The firm filed plans for the “7 and 8-story brick and stone” building in January 1902. The anticipated cost was $80,000—more than $2.25 million in 2016.

A lavish fund-raiser for the building was held in the home of Mrs. William Hamilton Harris at No. 306 West 75th Street on the afternoon of December 12, 1902.  The wealthy socialites who attended were less interested in the fact that “tea will be served and Sherry’s Hungarians will play;” than in dolls.

Manhattan’s top dressmakers had designed gowns for the doll sale.  And the dolls were displayed in elaborate settings.  The New-York Tribune announced “The dolls will compete in a maypole dance, in coasting, tobogganing and other winter sports, and will exhibit their skill in housekeeping, in the drawing room, bedroom and other departments of the household.”  One especially-appropriate scene was “a ward in the ‘Babies’ Hospital,’ with babies and nurses in costume, with beds and furniture in proper form.”   The moneyed ladies were offered “a rare opportunity [to] purchase dolls, dressed in the most exquisite taste, for Christmas gifts.”

While demolition and construction were underway, the Babies’ Hospital moved temporarily into the Nursery and Child’s Hospital.   On May 12, 1902 the New-York Tribune published York & Sawyer’s sketch of the building and gave readers an idea of what was to come.

The basement would house a “disinfecting plant,” the laundry, kitchen and “servants’ dining room.”  A dispensary was located on the first floor, as were a room for the “clothing committee,” offices and a clinic.  The second floor was for staff.  It held the nurses’ dining room and quarters for the hospital board, the secretary and the matron.

Nurses and other staff lived on the third floor; while the upper floors contained wards and “model nurseries.”  On the top floor was a solarium—a must-have at the turn of the century when sunlight was believed to cure diseases like tuberculosis—and a laboratory.  The Tribune promised “The hospital will be fitted up in the most modern fashion.”

Following the hospital’s completion, the Real Estate Record & Guide pointed to it as an example of the renewed interest in brick as the major component in building design.  On February 14, 1903 the journal insisted “A distinct revival in favor of brick is observable” and pointed not only to the Babies’ Hospital, but to the new American Express building on Madison Avenue, and Public School No. 43 on Amsterdam Avenue, among others.

The original structure was just two bays wide on Lexington Avenue.  A woman, coincidentally, pushes her baby carriage at the corner.  Architectural Record 1903 (copyright expired)
Indeed, the building, completed in December 1902, strayed from the expected limestone or marble cladding of its Beaux Arts style.  The porticoed entrance, on 55th Street, was located in the two-story rusticated stone base.  A lush frieze of draping garlands undulated over blank medallions below four stories of variegated brick that created a textured façade.  French-inspired cast iron balconies relieved the flat surface at the fourth floor.  Above the copper cornice, supported on scrolled stone brackets, the solarium and laboratory were nearly hidden from street view.

A few weeks after the hospital moved in, it hosted the annual reception of the Board of Managers on January 16, 1903.  “The hospital will be open for inspection,” said the New-York Tribune, adding it “is fully equipped with the most approved appliances…The entire building is admirably arranged for its uses, and those who will visit it for the first time next Friday have a pleasure in store.”

At the reception meeting it was announced that Mr. and Mrs. John Sherman Hoyt had promised $500 a year to extend the hospital’s work.  The money would be used to provide home visitations, highly important because the condition of the infants often digressed when returned to their tenement homes.

“It has always distressed us to send the patients back into their often miserable homes, there to continue their downward career,” explained Dr. L. Emmett Holt.

Within only six years the facility was too small for its ever-growing work.  In September 1909 York & Sawyer filed plans for a $10,000, eight-story annex to house the dispensary and nurses’ dormitory.  The resulting addition was seamless; discernible only by the closest scrutiny.

The pitiable circumstances of the parents who entrusted their children to the Babies’ Hospital was evidenced when a woman collapsed in the doorway of the East 51st Street police station on January 29, 1910.  Mrs. Gertrude Lough was just 20 years old.  Her husband, Thomas, was an unemployed carpenter who had not been able to find work for several months.

Unable to pay their rent, the couple and their five-month old baby boy, Harry, had been evicted from their apartment three weeks earlier.  The landlord took pity and allowed them to live in a vacant building on East 50th Street, as “caretakers.”   They had a place to live, but no food.

When Gertrude Lough was revived, she told police “they had had nothing to eat since Thursday, when they had a few crumbs of bread.”  The week before Thomas found an odd job and earned $5.  That was spent on milk for the baby and doctor bills and medicine for him.

A doctor diagnosed the woman with “starvation and fatigue.”  Dr. Arnold went to the Loughs’ rooms where he found Thomas holding the malnourished baby.   Harry was removed at once to the Babies’ Hospital.

In the meantime, back at the station house the police began passing a hat.  Four prisoners, who overheard Gertrude’s story, asked to contribute as well.  The men raised $15.  And Dr. Arnold offered to try to find work for Thomas Lough.

The heading bond brickwork results in a tapestry-like appearance.

Perhaps the most publicized patient of the Babies’ Hospital was little Mary Margaret Roberts.  She was born deformed on November 23, 1915 with an open spine, and was paralyzed from the waist down.  Her mother, in serious condition following the birth, was not informed of her baby’s condition for fear of the shock the news would bring.

Mary Margaret was brought to the hospital immediately after birth.  When her father, Joseph E. Roberts, and grandmother, Mrs. Margaret Branley, realized the condition of the girl, they insisted that she be allowed to die, “rather than live hopelessly deformed.”

“But they have been overruled by Dr. Maurice Rosenberg,” reported The Evening World the following day.  “Officials of the hospital, in a statement issued to-day, also let it be known that every effort would be made to prolong the life of Baby Roberts.”

But when Chicago surgeon, Dr. Harry J. Halseiden, was asked to travel to New York to perform the operation, he refused.  The New York Times said he felt “that science should not be employed to prolong the life of a monstrosity.”

With no surgeons with Halseiden’s expertise available, the doctors of the Babies’ Hospital were forced to capitulate.  On November 25 it was announced that the infant “will be permitted to die a natural death, even though an operation might prolong her life.”

The case received national press attention.  Dr. Harry Halseiden was, at times, depicted as a heartless cad.  In all instances, the doctors at Babies’ Hospital were shown to be disheartened at their forced decision.   Finally, on December 3, 1915, the New-York Tribune ran the headline “Baby’s Problem Solved by Death.”

During "Baby Week" in March 1916 the Babies’ Hospital published daily tips for mothers in the newspapers.  On March 9 the tip was “Babies get terrible whacks, some mothers forget them—stuff a ‘pacifier’ into their mouths—the worst thing ever made for a baby—and then they wonder why remonstrance follows later on.”

Children gather around a Christmas tree in 1926.  Columbia University Medical Collect Archives
In 1929 the Babies’ Hospital was absorbed by Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and left Lexington Avenue.  The building at Lexington and 55th Street was converted to offices and retail spaces were carved into the street level.  At some point the lovely cast iron balconies were removed; but otherwise the structure, with its tapestry of brick, survives relatively unchanged.

photographs by the author


  1. Tom-fascinating. I've passed this building a million times and had not the slightest idea of its history. Another confirmation of why I start every morning with Daytonian.

  2. God what a very sad tale. This is why I am so glad for social programs. 100 years ago, Americans dying of starvation...