King's Handbook of New York City, 1893 (copyright expired)
In October 1884, William Henry Vanderbilt donated land between 59th and 60th Streets, and Ninth and Tenth Avenues, plus $300,000 "for erection thereon of new buildings" to the College of Physicians and Surgeons. John Call Dalton, historian of the college, wrote four years later, "As the cost of the land was Two Hundred Thousand dollars, the value of the whole donation was half a million." The generous gift would equal more than $14 million in 2023. The Vanderbilt property shared the block with the Roosevelt Hospital, donated by another millionaire, James Henry Roosevelt.
In announcing his gift, Vanderbilt wrote in part, "I have been for some time examining the question of the facilities for medical education which New York possess," noting, "I have therefore selected the College of Physicians and Surgeons because it is the oldest medical school in the State, and of equal rank with any in the United States."
Indeed, the College of Physicians and Surgeons traced its beginnings to 1767, when King's College established the first medical school in New York and the second in the Colonies. After having moved several times since its first permanent building at 3 Barclay Street near City Hall Park the college was currently located at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 23rd Street.
First first permanent building was on Barclay Street. History of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, 1888 (copyright expired)
The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide viewed the gift somewhat askance. On October 25, 1884 it admitted, "Mr. Wm. H. Vanderbilt's gift to the College of Physicians and Surgeons is a generous one and will result doubtless in giving New York another fine public building and additional prestige as the best city in New York for securing thorough education in any of the great medical specialties." But it added, "It may be ungracious to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the other medical institutions in this city are anything but pleased at Mr. Vanderbilt's costly advertisement of one out of many deserving medical schools."
Architect William Wheeler Smith was hired to design the college building. Construction began in July 1885 and was completed in September 1887. Four stories tall, Smith had blended the Renaissance Revival and Romanesque Revival styles to create a rather no-nonsense, H-shaped academic structure. The entrance above a short stoop was deeply recessed within an archway. The structure's red brick facade was sparsely trimmed in stone, its splayed lintels and quoins executed in brick.
The building was H-shaped, with only the southern (59th Street) elevation seen here. Illustrated Guide to new York City, 1889 (copyright expired)
The building was dedicated on September 29, 1887. The New York Times reported, "The exercises of the day were dignified and without ostentation." The understated ceremony may have been out of respect for William Henry Vanderbilt. The facility's benefactor had died unexpectedly on December 8, 1885. "Representing the Vanderbilt family were Cornelius and George Vanderbilt," said the article. Included in the event was the presentation of a bronze bust of Vanderbilt, executed by John Quincy Adams Ward.
Calling it "a modest brick structure," The New York Times described the layout of the new College of Physicians and Surgeons. The southern "wing" (opening onto 59th Street) contained "the administrative department, with conversation, reading, and smoking rooms, and a room where disarticulated skeletons are kept." On the second and third floors were lecture rooms, a laboratory and "the Swift Physiological Cabinet." The top floor was "devoted wholly to work upon the cadaver...It contains 36 tables, at which 180 students can dissect at once."
The middle section held two large lecture rooms, each capable of seating 450 students. At the time of opening, the northern section contained "workrooms in the various departments."
Not included in William Henry Vanderbilt's vision was the Vanderbilt Clinic, at 60th Street and Tenth Avenue . It was donated following his death as a memorial to him by his sons. Their sister, Emily Vanderbilt Sloane and her husband William, donated the Sloane Maternity Hospital at the corner of 59th Street and Tenth Avenue. Vanderbilt's initial gift had evolved into a medical complex.
William Henry Vanderbilt's gift was augmented by his children's buildings at left. History of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, 1888 (copyright expired)
The auxiliary buildings were not dedicated until December 29, 1887, perhaps so as not to initially diminish attention to William Henry Vanderbilt's building. The New York Times reported, "From 10 o'clock until late in the afternoon a constant stream of visitors thronged the new buildings, finding nothing to criticise and everything to commend in the plans and finish and furnishing of both buildings."
Four years later the College of Physicians and Surgeons merged with Columbia College. The New York Times reported that Columbia's president, Seth Low, asserted, "With a medical department an integral part of its university system, Columbia becomes in scope and equipment a complete university."
The close relationship between the college and the Vanderbilt family was evidenced in January 1895, when Cornelius, William Kissam and Frederick Washington Vanderbilt announced a gift of $350,000 "for the erection of two buildings of the College of Physicians and Surgeons," and Emily and William Sloane announced a gift of $200,000 "for an addition to the Sloane Maternity Hospital." The New York Times reported that the Vanderbilt brothers' gift "will be an addition to the Vanderbilt Clinic, built at Sixtieth Street and Amsterdam Avenue." The five-story structure would be used by the clinic as well as by the pathological and bacteriological branches of the College of Physicians and Surgeons proper. The New York Times predicted, "This addition will make the Vanderbilt Clinic the best in the city, if not in the country."
The addition to the Sloane Maternity Hospital was to be an adjunct of the College, "mainly occupied by the department of anatomy," said The New York Times. The article noted that the "ever-increasing number of students" made the enlargement necessary. "A couple of the floors of the building will be devoted to the departments of physiology, materia medica, and neurology." The structures, which promised to be "arranged in conformity with the general style of the other college buildings," were completely furnished and equipped by the Vanderbilts.
The following year President Seth Low moved Columbia's campus from Midtown far north to Morningside Heights. The complex of the College of Physicians and Surgeons buildings were now remote from the main campus.
The situation was addressed in May 1915 when the Trustees of Columbia University announced the school had joined with the Presbyterian Hospital to plan "the building of a great medical college and hospital on the site of the old American League Baseball Park, ten acres bounded by 165th Street, 168th Street, Broadway, and Fort Washington Avenue." The New York Times reported the plan included a five-year, $7.5 million fund raising drive.
As the plans went forward and construction eventually commenced, the college continued on in the Vanderbilt buildings. On September 19, 1926, The New York Times reported, "The 173d academic year of Columbia University will begin on Wednesday with exercises at the McMillin Academic Theatre on Morningside Heights and at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in East [sic] Fifty-ninth Street." But that would be among the last such ceremonies. In 1928 the College of Physicians and Surgeons finally moved into its new medical center campus uptown.
Today the block is greatly taken up (appropriately) by the Mount Sinai Doctors building. The sole survivor of the Vanderbilt era is, ironically, not a Vanderbilt building. The William J. Syms Operating Theatre was erected in 1891-92 in conjunction with the Roosevelt Hospital.
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