Monday, April 3, 2017

The Lost St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children - 407 W 34th St

Traces of the original three-story house remain in the parlor and basement levels.  King's Handbook of New York, 1893. (copyright expired)
In 1870 the Sisters of St. Mary organized a free hospital in a rented house at No. 407 West 34th Street, near Ninth Avenue.  It sat on the southern edge of the notorious and impoverished Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.  Their ambitious and praise-worthy project was part of a trend that had first appeared in the years before the outbreak of Civil War--providing medical care to the children of impoverished families.   The sisters explained later "The hospital is intended for the exclusive reception of children, and it is always to be entirely free to the helpless little ones."

On February 23, 1876 The New York Times reported "St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children, which is now in the sixth year of its existence, has been deemed by its founders so successful as to justify their purchasing the building which they now occupy, together with the open ground adjacent."  The house and the vacant lot were priced at $30,000--nearly $685,000 today--and deemed "as low a figure, it is thought, as it will ever reach."  (In fact, the final price was reduced to $27,000.)

The Sisters of St. Mary's set out to remodel the old house while seamlessly melding its architecture with a new building on the lot next door, creating a modern hospital and nurses' training school.  Having spent a considerable amount of money on the property; a remarkable scheme of fund-raising was hatched.  The Episcopal Church would "sell" bricks to Sunday School children.

The New York Times explained "The cost of the brick when in position is estimated at ten cents, and it is desired to have 350,000, equivalent to $35,000...Although this plan has been originated quite recently, 10,000 bricks have been subscribed, and the popularity of the scheme with the Sunday-school children is such that no fears are entertained of its ultimate success."

In return for his dime, the child received an "illuminated card" signed by Bishop Henry C. Potter, stating that the donor "has placed one brick in St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children."

Despite the Church's optimism, fund raising lasted more than two years.  But on January 5, 1878 The American Architect and Building News reported that Henry M. Congdon had been chosen as architect.  He supplied the journal with a preliminary sketch.  "This design contemplates the alteration and enlargement of the present building, which is an ordinary city dwelling," said the article.

Congdon's water-color rendering appeared in The American Architect and Building News on January 5, 1878 (copyright expired)

Construction began a few months later and was not completed until December 1880.  The Sisters of St. Mary's had a new building, and a major debt; a fact that newspapers were quick to point out to possible donors.  The New-York Tribune, on December 24, wrote "St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children, which has erected a new building at large expense, is one of these well-considered efforts for the amelioration of the condition of poor children."  The article noted "The new building...has entailed a heavy debt, and the Society needs aid."

Congdon's 50-foot wide Queen Anne-style structure was faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone and terra cotta.  Touches of Ruskinian Gothic appeared in the alternating stone and brick treatment of the arches; most notably the Moorish-influenced arch of the entrance.

Taking note of that entrance, The Times wrote "A broad, arched entrance, handsomely embellished with carved stone-work and massive doors ornamented with stained glass, leads to a wide vestibule, in the centre of which is the main staircase."

Polished ash woodwork complemented the pine floors.  The basement level contained the reception room, the drug storeroom, kitchen, and laundry.  The visitors' waiting room was on the first floor, along with a dining room, office and one ward.  The second floor contained the common wards; while the third floor was designated for the nuns.  Here were a chapel, a linen room and the Sisters' sleeping rooms.  The top floor housed a playroom, the operating room, the isolation ward, and servants' sleeping rooms.  The new hospital could accommodate 75 children, between the ages of two and thirteen.

Oddly, at least by today's viewpoint, special pride was taken in the fact that all the plumbing pipes, including those for the steam heat, were exposed.  The Times explained that should a leak occur, "the defect can be readily detected and remedied."

The "handsome new building," as described by The Times, was formally dedicated on December 30, 1880 with a service in the chapel conducted by Bishop Potter.  Among those attending were some of the wealthiest women in Manhattan--names like Livingston, Archibald, Harriman, Miller, Breese and De Forest--a favorable sign for the hospital's finances. 

The directors of St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children, perhaps remembering the success of the brick-selling project, targeted young people for donations.  In the "Our Letter Box" column of Harper's Young People magazine on July 26, 1881 was a letter from Miss E. A. Fanshaw.  In it she played on the Victorian children's sympathies, saying in part:

In the city of New York, as most of you know, there are a great many little children who, when they are sick, or meet with an accident, have no one to take care of them, or if they have, are compelled to stay in a small close room, where there are a great many people, a great deal of noise, which makes it very hard for them to get well.  Knowing this, some kind people have built a house, called "St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children"...under the care of some kind women.  They take in any child, black or white, of any creed under fourteen years old, who has no disease which other little ones might take, so long as they have space and money to take care of them.

Fanshaw suggested that rather than spend their allowances on candy, they might sent it to the Hospital.  "When you buy candy, it is soon eaten, and that is the end of both candy and money; but in this case the good of your money will last always, and the self-denial it costs will help you to grow stronger to 'fight for the right."  And then, to drive her point home, she added "Jesus will know it."

Although today we might question the ethics of targeting children, the urgency of raising funds was always an issue.  In 1893 the hospital was treating 400 in-patient cases and "5,000 suffering children" through the free dispensary.  The yearly costs were $14,000--more than $381,000 today, with no assured income.

Children of the tenements and streets arrived with often debilitating diseases, such as tuberculosis.  On July 16, 1892 the New York Medical Journal reported on operations performed at St. Mary's Hospital for Children by its surgeon, Dr. Charles T. Poore "upon tuberculous hip joints."

The statistics in the article reflected how risky the procedure was in the 1890s.  Of the 65 operations, 32 children were discharged as "cured," 25 died, three were discharged as "relieved," two were discharged with no change in their conditions, and four remained in the hospital.

Before the first guest checked in to William Astor's lavish new Waldorf Hotel in the spring of 1893 a glittering charity event was held in its ballroom.   The Times reported on March 15 "Sweet and gentle Charity was the honored guest at the formal opening of the sumptuous new Hotel Waldorf...The hand of Society greeted cordially all persons who entered the portals of that regal establishment and led them, not only into a realm of splendor and luxury, but into a genial atmosphere of restful enjoyment."

The "sweet and gentle charity" to which the article referred was St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children.  The benefit concert, organized by Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Richard Irvin and Mrs. Arthur Welman, drew the leading members of New York society.  The one glaringly absent figure was Caroline Astor, who was still fuming over her nephew's erection of a hotel next door to her mansion.

When Harper's Weekly published Congdon's rendering on February 9, 1878, it took the liberty of adding well-dressed New Yorkers--none of whom in fact would have been present in the seedy neighborhood. (copyright expired)

In 1903 the number of admitted children had more than doubled since 1893 to 843; and the dispensary that year treated 14,194 patients.

A few years earlier Dexter Fellowes had been hospitalized with the measles.  He was devastated as his "imprisonment" occurred just as the circus was due to arrive in town.  "He got over them just in time to go down to 'the lot' and see where The Show had been," reported the New-York Tribune years later.  The newspaper wrote "He never forgot that he had lost three hours of Heaven and peanuts."

And so in 1908 when the circus returned to Manhattan, Fellowes, now grown and successful, made sure that no other little boy would miss it.  He arranged to have the circus come to St. Mary's Hospital for Children on April 4.

Remarkably, the baby elephant named Abe Lincoln led the procession, right up the stairs (aided by handlers pushing his broad rear end) and into the hospital.  "Then he paddled down the aisle between the beds, with his little trunk reaching out to grasp the hands of all the boys and girls," reported the Tribune.

The newspaper's report shed light on the sad conditions of some patients.  "It was a pathetically queer little group that sought to grasp Abe's trunk.  Some...had been strapped pappoose-wise to big ironing boards for months, and others were harnessed in steel cages, which keep the soft or brittle bones from giving way.  Some of the little ones could sit up, but there were not many of them."

For an hour the cares of the children were washed away as clowns cavorted with their dogs "and showed how to quiet a squealing piglet."  The writer said "the most intelligent monkey in captivity showed how the 'Merry Widow Waltz' really should be danced."

Fellowes's thoughtful gesture provided more good than he could have imagined.  "In the medical ward the convalescents laughed until the Sisters said that they gained more weight in an hour than they had been expected to do in a week.  The nurses, catching the contagion from the children, displayed more dimples than an ordinary man would think existed in all New York."

Throughout the years socialites hosted charity events in their mansions for the hospital.  On November 18, 1913 Mrs. J. Woodward Haven held a sale of articles "suitable for Christmas gifts" in her home at No. 18 East 79th StreetThe Sun mentioned "Many women prominent in society have donated fancy and useful articles, pieces of wearing apparel and other objects to be sold."

Another sale was held in the mansion of a neighbor, Mrs. John S. Rogers at No. 53 East 79th Street, in March 1918.  The Sun reported "There will be on sale articles suitable for country houses, garden aprons, candle shades, travelling sets of cretonne, patriotic workbags, table covers and other useful articles."

Perhaps most notable of these mansion-based benefits occurred on Tuesday afternoon, January 15, 1924.  The New York Times announced "Mrs. Vincent Astor will open her house, 840 Fifth Avenue...for a concert to be given for the benefit of St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children.  Mme. Bori will sing."

By 1930 the four-story hospital was not only outdated, but too small.  On July 2 that year plans were filed for a $1.5 million, 12-story facility to be replace the Victorian building.  That building was demolished in 1953 to make way for a sprawling warehouse building which was in turn remodeled to office space, known at 441 Ninth Avenue, in the 1980s.

photo via


  1. The hospital still exists moved to Queens in 1951. Their website is

  2. My great-grandmother served as an obstetric/pediatric nurse at this hospital between 1880 and 1930. I have a letter from the Chief Administrator of the hospital saying how hard it would be to imagine the hospital without her.

    1. How wonderful! Do you know much of your grandmother's service during that time? I had my grandfather's sister died in the hospital there in 1910

  3. my Mom was born Nov 15th 1922 an is still alive approaching 101 years of age. She was born at St Mary's. The story was that my grandmother was not doing well and the doctors focus was on her, when my mother was born the doctor handed the baby to the nurse and said I think the baby is dead. My Mom stuck out her little tongue and it touched the nurses wrist. The nurse exclaimed Doctor the baby is alive!!! Wouldn't it be amazing if your great grandmother had been that nurse.