Thursday, June 9, 2016

The 1892 Eastern Dispensary -- No. 75 Essex Street

In the first decades after the Revolution contagious disease was a threat as some New York City neighborhoods grew crowded and unsanitary.  Yellow fever alone reached epidemic proportions in 1795, 1799 and 1803, claiming thousands of lives.  Other diseases—typhoid, smallpox, and cholera among them—struck well-founded fear in citizens and public officials.

In response, the city organized the first Board of Health in 1832, specifically to combat yellow fever and cholera.  But years before that, in 1791, the first of the public dispensaries opened—more or less the precursors of today’s urgent care walk-in clinics.   The same year that the Board of Health was organized, the third dispensary was opened at 420 Grand Street in a slum neighborhood of Irish immigrants who lived in squalid, unhealthy surroundings.  The Eastern Dispensary was granted its charter on April 25, 1832.

By the early 1850's, the Eastern Dispensary was treating thousands of immigrants each year, reflected in monthly reports.  On February 21, 1852, The New York Times reported that in January 1,843 patients received medical aid, of which 465 were attended to in their homes and 1,829 in the dispensary.  “Fifteen patients died,” noted the report.  During that month 3,787 prescriptions were given out.

Unlike some other facilities, the Eastern Dispensary was, as pointed out in an 1854 letter to the Editor of The Times, “wholly supported by voluntary contributions.”  The writer noted that the physicians at the dispensary “are daily and continually administering to the wants of the afflicted poor, who, were it not for the timely assistance thus rendered, would be left to languish in secret helplessness and unattended through the time of sickness, and many of them to sink, through neglect, into a premature grave.”

In florid Victorian prose, the unnamed writer prompted the public to donate.  “The Trustees have occasion to regret that the annual income of the Dispensary has not increased in proportion to its opportunities of extended usefulness.”

By the time of that letter the Dispensary was located at 79 Ludlow Street, having moved there in 1836.  By 1860, according to the president of the facility, G. A. Black, “it was treating a larger number of patients than any other dispensary in the city.”  That year the Common Council allotted the dispensary two rooms on the second floor of the Essex Market Building—a multi-purpose structure that housed not only a public market but an armory.

Close inspection reveals the Eastern Dispensary sign on the right of the market-armory-clinic building.  Report of the Eastern Dispensary, 1872 (copyright expired)

Then, in 1889 the Eastern Dispensary was told it needed to vacate its space.  The New England Journal of Medicine explained “The Trustees are compelled, now, however, to appeal to the public, because the city authorities have offered the Essex Market building for sale, and the dispensary officers are hence forced to provide a permanent home for the dispensary.  They have purchased a plot of ground on the corner of Broome and Essex Streets.”

The Journal added, parenthetically, that the dispensary “is one of the oldest medical charities, is located in the centre of the most densely populated portion of the city, and has never asked aid from the general public.”

The trustees paid $47,000 for the site (about $1.25 million in 2016 dollars).  The architectural firm of Rose & Stone was commissioned to design a state-of-the art dispensary building.  Its cornerstone was laid at 3:30 on the afternoon of January 29, 1890.  The Sun reported that 30 policemen kept the streets clear “and a big crowd stood behind the line of bluecoats, and watched the ceremonies from a distance.  The windows of all the tenement houses near by were full of interested spectators.”

Inside the copper box deposited in the cornerstone were copies of the daily newspapers, a copy of the dispensary charter, and photographs of the trustees.  Traditionally coins minted that year would be included, but the trustees insisted “the dispensary had none to spare for such a purpose.”  Indeed, it did not.  Only a portion of the cost of the land had been paid and the full $75,000 price tag to build and equip the new building still had to be raised. 

Three days before the cornerstone ceremony The New York Times had noted the astounding amount of work being done by the Eastern Dispensary.  The previous year doctors “treated 61,228 patients, treatment being given 106,748 times.  This is the largest work ever one by a medical institution in America, and it has never been exceeded except in the great medical institutions of Vienna, Paris, and London.”  The newspaper pointed out “The patients treated were largely recently-arrived immigrants, who rarely become chronic charity seekers.”

The newspaper said of the new dispensary “It is expected that this will be one of the most perfectly equipped buildings of its kind in the country.  Its street floor and first floor will be devoted to the apothecary shop, rooms for the visiting physicians, an office for the physician in chief and his assistants, and accommodations for the immediate isolation of cases of contagion.”  Above were the waiting rooms and examination rooms and “apartments for the attending physicians.”

Construction was completed in mid-May 1891 at a total cost of $133,000.  Rose & Stone had produced a brick and brownstone Italian Renaissance palazzo—a refined edifice amid lowly tenement surroundings.  Alternating courses of brick and stone created a rusticated base relieved by large arched openings.  Despite the restrained ornamentation of the upper floors (or because of it) the Eastern Dispensary building exuded dignity.

Once the equipment and furnishings were moved in, the dispensary was opened for “public inspection” on June 16.  In reporting on the opening, The Sun mentioned “It is at the corner of Broome and Essex street, one block from the shabby old building at Grand street that has been occupied for years.”

Just before the Dispensary moved into its new quarters it merged with the Good Samaritan Dispensary, formed earlier that year through an immense bequest from the recently deceased Sarah Burr.  Her will instructed that the funds were to be used to found a dispensary.  The Eastern Dispensary now had a “superb building,” as described by The Sun; but was straddled with insurmountable debts.  The Good Samaritan Dispensary had large resources, but no facility.

The solution was a merger.  The Sun reported that on June 1 “the Eastern Dispensary ceased active operations, and the Good Samaritan Dispensary entered upon the field.”

The name change in no way affected the operations of the Dispensary.  And the increased facilities afforded space for programs impossible before.  Immediately Dr. Harry Koplick designated one room for the “work of preparing sterilized milk and placing it within the reach of the poor, who need it most and know least of its advantages as food for children in the summer months,” as reported by The Sun.  (Dr. Koplick, incidentally, developed a method of early diagnosis of measles here, today known by doctors as “Koplick spots.”)

On April 18, 1892 Good Samaritan published its first report, which showed a 24 percent increase in new patients seen (up to 90,856) and a 21 percent increase in prescriptions.  The Sun noted “The dispensary is not wholly a free charity.  From the Eastern Dispensary the Good Samaritan Dispensary learned to collect from each applicant, except the very poorest, the sum of ten cents, so that the self-respect and independence of the beneficiaries are preserved, and they contribute actually very largely to the maintenance of the institution.”

The breakdown of the patients’ origins reflected the changing neighborhood and the incredible influx of immigrants.  Nearly half of them, 40,609, were of Russian birth.  Only 2,909 of the children treated were of American parentage.  “Austro-Hungary provided 6,555 patients, Germany sent 3,192, and Roumania 2,981.  Ireland sent only 1,3165 and England came next with 756.”  Other nationalities included Italy, France, Palestine, Sweden, Turkey, Greece, Scotland, Holland and Sweden.  “More than 28,000 of the 35,571 children treated were of Russian parentage,” according to the report.

The conditions endured by the indigent families and the types of cases treated at the Good Samaritan Dispensary were exemplified by the Samuel Dorf family in 1893.  Samuel, his wife and son lived on the top floor of a six-story apartment house at 136 Delancey Street.  Crowded into the apartment with them were Samuel’s brother, Barney, and his family of four.

Shortly before noon on March 21, 1893 the stove was knocked over and the kerosene-fueled fire spread rapidly through the rooms.  Terrorized, Mrs. Dorf placed four-year old Abraham on the fire escape then prepared to climb through the open window herself.

But, The Evening World reported, “The screaming child wriggled about in his fright on the fire-escape, and before the excited mother could get him in her arms again he rolled down through the opening in the grating and landed with a sickening crash on the fire-escape attached to the first floor.”

Mrs. Dorf climbed rapidly down the iron fire escape to find Abraham bleeding and unconscious.  “She picked him up in her arms and rushed to the Eastern Dispensary where Dr Swinburne did what he could for the little sufferer, while an ambulance from Gouveneur Hospital was being summoned.”  The toddler was diagnosed with a compound fracture of the thigh, numerous other fractures, and “internal injuries, which may prove fatal.”

In 1901 The New York Times reflected on the changing demographics around the Dispensary.  It noted that originally “the region was largely inhabited by the Irish."  The article continued  “There came a time, not so many years ago, when most of its patients, or at least a considerable percentage, were Italians.  Now the great majority of them are Hebrews.  There is no longer a distinctively Irish quarter.”

The New-York Tribune reported on an increased illegal drug problem in the city on April 29, 1915.  Amid a long list of recent arrests, the newspaper noted “Early yesterday morning Thomas Green, seventeen years old…walked into the Good Samaritan Dispensary…and holding two clerks at bay with a revolver, stole an ounce and a half of morphine valued at $5.  He sold the drug for $15.”

Surrounded by tenements, the Dispensary as it appeared on September 5, 1930, from the collection of the New York Public Library

But offenses like Green’s were rare.  The Dispensary continued its good works, including the milk program, for decades.  But by the 1940s, when the price of visiting the clinic had risen to 75 cents, a marked change was noticed.  The strengthened economy brought on by World War II along with increased health insurance coverage greatly reduced the amount of patients.  From 1940 to 1954 the number of new patients dropped from 22,607 to 4,326.  The operating deficit which was $10,562 in 1940 rose to $38,852 in 1954.

On September 18, 1955, The New York Times reported that the Good Samaritan Dispensary “apparently has outlived much of its usefulness” and that it would close on September 30.  Four years later the building was converted to offices on the upper floors with retail space at ground level.

In 2013 demolition of the entire block surrounding the former Dispensary Building was begun to make way for a mixed-use development, part of the Essex Crossing project.  Preservationists scrambled to save the building.  They received their response from the Landmarks Preservation Commission on March 27, 2014.  The Commission found that the “property lacks the significance necessary to be considered” and “does not meet the criteria for designation.”

With that potential problem out of the say, the owner got rid of his tenants and placed the vacant building on the market for $30 million.   The Italian palazzo that looked a bit out of place in 1891 now sits on a barren landscape awaiting its fate.  

photographs by the author


  1. The Commission found that the “property lacks the significance necessary to be considered” and “does not meet the criteria for designation.”

    The Commission needs a good kick in the pants.

  2. The building housed "Bell Yarn," the "go-to" place for all you sowing needs for many years.