A Hospital on Hudson Street with 'The Finest Equipment Money Could Buy'

A doctor visits a patient in one of the “reception wards" where patients stayed overnight. All illustrations from Scientific American, Sept. 29, 1894.

Sep. 05, 2016

When it opened in 1894 the New York Times called it “an ornament to the neighborhood.” Indeed it was. The House of Relief, an emergency medical facility at the corner of Hudson and Jay streets operated by the New York Hospital, boasted the finest equipment money could buy as well as a highly trained staff. The building is still there today, converted like most others in Tribeca, to apartments.

The ambulance and emergency service had originally been operated by the city, but early in the 19th century the city asked the New York Hospital, which had been founded in 1771 and was then located on Broadway at Duane Street, to take it over. And so it did. But when the hospital itself moved uptown to West 15th Street in the 1870s—it would later move again, to its present location on East 68th Street—it transferred the ambulance operation to a building at 160 Chambers Street, which it called the House of Re­lief.  

The new location was barely big enough. “Bridge jumpers, attempted suicides…victims of would-be murderers, accident cases,” as a newspaper reported, clogged the facility and severely challenged the staff. By the 1890s the building was clearly inadequate. And so the New York Hospital acquired the property at 67 Hudson Street, hired the notable architect Josiah C. Cady (who had already won renown as the designer of the former Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 40th Street) to put up a new facility, which opened in 1894.

Cady did himself proud, for the five-story building is a handsome Ren­ais­sance Revival struc­ture. But the interiors were something else. As Scientific Amer­ican magazine noted, it was “a perfect miniature hospital.” There were two operating rooms, one on the ground floor for emergency cases and another on the third floor for other needs, like amputations. Also on the ground floor was a “sunstroke room” for treating severe heat cases; it contained an electric crane that could lift a patient and swiftly plunk him into an ice-cold bath for instant relief.

Other floors contained a dispensary and “reception wards” for overnight pa­tients. There were pleasingly outfitted dining and reading rooms for doctors and nurses.

Most of the hospital’s floors were marble, so that virtually the entire building could be washed down if necessary, and the building was heated and cooled by what was called a “forced draft system.” All of its machinery was driven by electricity.

On the roof, fi­nally, was an en­closed space for pa­tients who needed sunlight or fresh air, with awnings and cur­tains to control the temperature and ad­just the amount of shade.

The building’s main entrance was up a flight of stairs in the center of the Hudson Street side, but ambulances entered via an alley on the northern side of the building that led through to Staple Street and was kept private by electrically controlled gates at each end.

The alley entrance proved to be inadequate, and so in 1907 the New York Hospital constructed a three-story separate building across Staple Street not only to serve as a garage and stable but also to contain laundry facilities. Designed in the Neo-Renaissance style by the firm of Robertson & Potter, it was connected to the main building by an enclosed iron footbridge above Staple Street that ever since has delighted passersby.

The New York Hospital also chose to mount a terra cotta shield with its initials, NYH, on the side of the new building, a feature that has caused untold numbers of people to assume mistakenly that the stable building was once the hospital, too.

The hospital continued to own and operate the House of Relief until 1919, when it was taken over by the U.S. Pub­lic Health Service. Thereupon it became known as a “U.S. Marine Hospital,” although its patients were not members of the Marine Corps but of the country’s merchant marine. As such it continued at least into the 1930s.

Today the main building, somewhat modified, is mainly residential, and its entrance is by the side alley through which the House of Relief’s ambulances clattered on their errands of mercy more than a century ago.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Tribeca Trib.