from Nineteenth Annual Report of the North-Western Dispensary, January 11, 1872 (copyright expired)
In the first decades after the Revolution contagious disease was a threat as some New York City neighborhoods grew crowded and unsanitary. In 1791, the first of the public dispensaries opened—more or less the precursors of today’s urgent care walk-in clinics. As the city expanded northward, additional dispensaries were established in poor neighborhoods.
The North-Western Dispensary was founded in 1852 under the supervision of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. It operated from rented rooms above a store on the corner of Eight Avenue and 36th Street within the notorious Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, infamous for crime and devastating poverty. But the area it covered was even larger--from 23rd Street north to 86th Street, and from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River.
While the engraver did show a ramshackle awning over the storefront, he put a happy face on the blighted district with gentile appearing pedestrians. Valentine's Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1868 (copyright expired)
Robert Ray, president of the dispensary, traveled to Albany in 1858. His petition for incorporation explained the purpose of the facility, saying in part it was founded...
for the purpose of providing and furnishing medicines, and medical and surgical aid gratuitously to the sick poor...General and gratuitous vaccination, and the collection of pure vaccine matter are made a prominent feature...which is distributed free of charge.
Ray pointed out that while the dispensary was "a public work," it was operated almost entirely by private donations.
Seven years after the dispensary's founding, Robert M. Hartley, secretary of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, pleaded with New Yorkers in a letter to the editor of The New York Times for funds for "an appropriate edifice." In it, published on August 25, 1859, he noted that the North-Western Dispensary had become "one of the most useful charities in the City." But he pointed out "the constant burden of rent and the risk of being dislodged," and warned the institution's "very existence is insecure until it has a building in fee under a charter, which will render the property legally inalienable to any other purpose."
Harley appealed to the emotions of his readers. "The two words, the 'Sick poor,' imply the whole design, and express its charitable character. Whoever may be neglected, the indigent sick should not be." Towards the end of his rather lengthy entreaty, he named the figure needed for the land and building: $20,000--or just under $650,000 today.
It would be nearly a decade before the money was raised. On December 13, 1868, the New York Herald reported, "It is gratifying to state...that they have accomplished the raising of a sufficient fund for putting up a new building. The ground has already been broken for this new structure, which is to be erected near the corner of Thirty-sixth street and Ninth avenue, and which will be modelled after the latest most approved styles."
The site was one block to the west of the existing facility. The esteemed architectural firm of Renwick & Sands had been commissioned for the project. The resultant Victorian Gothic style building would be trademark Renwick & Sands. The plans, filed in May 1869, succinctly called for a "brick dispensary" of four stories. Work proceeded at a rapid pace and by December, although construction was not completed, the facility was unofficially operating from the new building.
On December 12, 1869 the New York Dispatch commented on scope of the dispensary's work. "Last year, 10,824 patients were treated, and 17,908 prescriptions were dispensed from the apothecary's department...The medical staff of this dispensary consists of five visiting physicians, twelve attending physicians, four consulting physicians, one house physician, and one apothecary." During the year 1,862 patients were treated at home, while 8,962 came into the facility.
On January 20, 1870, The New York Times reported on the official opening. The cost of the project, originally expected to be $20,000, had risen to $83,000--around $1.7 million in today's money. "The new building is of brick, faced with stone, four stories in height, and admirably designed for its purpose," said the article.
Renwick & Sands's tripartite design included two stores on the ground floor, which provided extra funds for operating the dispensary. The windows of the midsection sat upon a wide stone band, their Gothic-arched lintels connected by a continuous stone bandcourse. Narrower bands of stone contrasted with the red brick, creating a striped effect between the openings. The windows of the top section sat within double-height arches, their lintels (as was the case at the second floor) composed of alternating dark and light stone.
The dispensary operated from the second and third floors. The top floor was designed as a vast meeting hall, which also provided rental income. The New York Times said it "is already leased to the Broadway Tabernacle Church for a Sunday School and other purposes, and the rents received from this hall and the stores beneath will aid considerably in the support of the institution."
The article noted, "The Dispensary proper is divided into reception rooms for patients, operating and consultation rooms for the various classes of diseases, apothecary shop, office and room for the house physician and a room for the Board of Managers. Everything has been done which skill could suggest to add to the convenience of the institution and to make it a model of its kind for the use for which it was erected."
Doctors at the North-Western Dispensary dealt, of course, not only with diseases and afflictions that arose from poverty and unsanitary living conditions, but from the lifestyles of many of the Hell's Kitchen residents. Two months after the new building opened, on March 9, 1870, 50-year-old James Creighton was brought in. The New-York Daily Tribune said, "He was apparently suffering from general debility, and was in a very low state." The attending physician "pronounced it a case of delirium tremens," or what today is known as alcohol withdraw. The article said, "The usual remedies in such cases were given, and the patient died on the following day." An autopsy showed death was caused "by corrosive poison."
The Dispensary's annual report that year gave a somewhat startling picture of its work. It said in part:
The wasting diseases of children, usually so common and fatal during the hot months, were much less so during last summer. Scarlet fever and measles, only, of a mild and manageable form prevailed. The gastric diseases of adults, with cholera-morbus and dysentery, heading the list, corresponded in character and frequency with those of children above alluded to...Small pox has prevailed considerably during the year, though I think not to such an extent in this district as to justify the excitement about it, that exists.
A particularly tragic patient was Christine Albertson, a Swedish immigrant who arrived on the ship Sunshine in 1876. On the voyage, she met another Swede, named Johansen. The New York Dispatch said, "The friendship soon ripened into love, and especially was this love sincere on the part of the girl. She loved Johansen with 'a love that the angels in Heaven might envy.'" Johansen took advantage of Christine's infatuation to seduce her, a situation that did not go unnoticed by the ship's captain.
Captain Simmons called the two into his cabin and asked Johansen if he intended to marry Christine, "for if you do not, you must cease to keep her company." Johansen said he certainly intended to marry her when they reached New York. Simmons then asked Christine if she would be willing to marry Johansen. She "burst into tears," according to the New York Dispatch, and said, "she loved him, and had no other alternative. 'For,' said she, 'I have been a wife to him in all but name nearly ever since the bark left Bremen.'"
When the ship arrived in New York, Simmons refused to let the couple disembark. He sent for a minister and they were married on board. It was not the beginning of a happy life for Christine. Only a few days later, Johansen "began to show his true character, he drank, and abused her, and her life was miserable." The article said, "He then made her go to a concert saloon in Broadway, and work to make money for him to recklessly spend for rum." And then, when Christine became pregnant and had to quit her job, Johansen deserted her.
Now penniless and alone, Christine came to the North-Western dispensary for medicine. When she went into labor in January 1877, a doctor went to the tenement where she was staying to deliver the little girl. The New York Dispatch reported that "some kind-hearted people" had taken an interest in Christine's case and had paid her rent. Her medical care, of course, was free. The newspaper added, "and if Johansen can be found, he will be held responsible for the future welfare of the wife he so cruelly betrayed and deserted."
Because the North-Western Dispensary relied almost entirely on donations, benefits were often held to raise funds. On November 23, 1902, for instance, the New-York Tribune announced, "The next of the series of dances given in the interest of the Northwestern Dispensary...will be held at the Manhattan, Nos. 113 and 115 West Seventy-ninth-st., on the evening of December 9," and two months later, on January 25, 1903, the newspaper reported, "The musical donation tea given at the home of Mrs. Loton Horton, of No. 117 West Seventy-second-st., last week for the benefit of the North-western Dispensary was a social and financial success."
The store fronts were significantly altered when this photo was taken on October 6, 1927. from the collection of the New York Public Library
The venerable institution continued in the Ninth Avenue building until 1954. When the North-Western Dispensary was formally merged with the Judson Health Center in March 1957, The New York Times recalled, "The North-western Dispensary, formerly at 403 West Thirty-sixth Street, was closed to make room for the Port of New York Authority administration building."
That structure was later demolished to make way for the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel. The Hudson Crossing Apartments, erected in 2002, now occupies part of the site.
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