The Architecture of Health Care (Part 2)

Today’s guest post is written by Bert Hansen, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history at Baruch College of CUNY.  He is the author of Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America (Rutgers, 2009), and other studies of medicine and science in the visual arts.  He is presenting an illustrated lecture about historic New York City buildings, followed by two walking tours-Uptown (May 13) and Downtown (May 20).  His 6 pm talk on Thursday, May 11, is entitled “Facades and Fashions in Medical Architecture and the Texture of the Urban Landscape.”  To read more about this lecture and to register, go HERE.

Part 1 introduced readers to the architectural firm of Sawyer and York and two of their medical buildings.  Part 2 now looks at Charles B. Meyers, who was responsible for dozens of major buildings in New York City and farther afield, including more than a dozen hospitals just in the city.  Still, he remains largely unknown outside of architectural history circles.

Readers of this blog are likely to know the red brick Psychiatric Hospital at Bellevue and Manhattan’s towering Criminal Court Building and House of Detention (New Deal WPA, 1938-41), sometimes called “The Tombs,” taking the name of an earlier building in neo-Egyptian style.[1]  Less familiar will be Morrisania Hospital in the Bronx and the Baruch College administration building (originally Family Court, 1939) on 22nd Street and Lexington Avenue.[2]  Some will have seen or visited the giant cube on Worth Street that housed the City’s Department of Health until 2011.  But it’s unlikely many could connect any of these with an architect’s name.  Even fifty years after his death, the imprint of Meyers on the look of New York is enormous while his name and career remain obscure.  Readily familiar buildings are seldom remembered as his elegant work.

Charles Bradford Meyers (ca.1875-1958) was an alumnus of City College and of Pratt Institute.  Early he worked in the office of Arthur Napier.  By the 1910s, he had began to specialize in schools, hospitals, and other public buildings.  Among about a dozen New York City hospitals he built, the Psychiatric building at Bellevue (1931) is one of the most familiar, in the red-brick and white-stone Beaux-Arts style that McKim Mead and White had established in their master plan for the Bellevue campus.

Fig1

The original Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital building (462 First Avenue). Source: Wikipedia.

His headquarters building for the New York City Department of Health (1935) at 125 Worth Street, right near two be-columned neo-classical courthouses, is a sleek, if monumental Art Deco cube with the names of famous healers inscribed on all four facades.  This building was one of many supported by federal infrastructure funding through the New Deal.  Nearby is another monumental work of his, the Manhattan Criminal Court Building of 1938-1941).  It, too, was a New Deal effort, one of thousands of such projects that are being documented in a crowd-sourced web-site, The Living New Deal.[3]

Fig2

New York City Department of Health (125 Worth Street). Source: Bert Hansen.

The former Morrisania Hospital (1929) in the Highbridge section of the Bronx is now an apartment cooperative, not generally accessible to architecture buffs or the public in general.  But I had an opportunity to visit last October during the weekend of Open House New York, when hundreds of generally private spaces are opened to the curious.

1-UH-Entrance_lr

The former Morrisania Hospital (East 168th Street between Gerard and Walton Avenues in the southern Bronx). Source: New York Housing Conference.

In the mid 1970s, Morrisania Hospital was closed at the time of the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, and the building sat empty for about twenty-five years.  During the time when its future was in doubt and it might have been demolished and lost to posterity, Christopher Gray wrote about it in his “Streetscapes” column in the New York Times (15 July 1990) with his characteristic blend of reportage and criticism:

“The façades are generally straw-colored brick, although they range from a light beige to a deep orange.  They are ornamented with delicately molded Renaissance-style terra cotta in acanthus leaf, egg and dart, Greek key and similar patterns.  Red roof tiles provide a final accent.  Although the main elevation, facing 168th Street, is fussy and over-decorated, the bulk of the complex is an educated, tasteful design—above the norm for municipal architecture in this period.”[4]

Fig3

Façade of the former Morrisania Hospital building. Source: Bert Hansen.

Gray wrote this column weekly from 1987 to 2014, offering such stimulating insights over more than twenty-five years.  I was one of his readers and, in retrospect, I now realize how much he shaped my awareness of the visual pleasures of the New York City’s historic architecture.  After Gray’s death earlier this spring, another New York Times writer on architecture and urban life, David W. Dunlap, called to mind Gray’s distinctive approach:  “Gray did not serve up conventional architectural assessments. . . .  His columns were narratives of creation, abandonment, and restoration that lovingly highlighted quirky design and backstairs gossip from decades past.”  And Gray himself, perhaps thinking of overlooked treasures like Morrisania Hospital, had once remarked, “I am much more interested in minor-league, oddball structures than in tour-bus monuments like the Woolworth Building.”[5]

Meyers was a prolific architect with a career of nearly sixty years.  His buildings exhibited a remarkable range of uses and aesthetic styles.  Because they are scattered around the city (and beyond), one can’t do a Charles B. Meyers walking tour.  But the historically curious can still visit former hospital buildings like Morrisania and Bellevue Psychiatry as well as the elegant downtown Art Deco cube that he built for the Health Department (since relocated to Queens) and that is now called the Health, Hospitals, and Sanitation Departments Building.

References:
[1] Norval White, Elliot Willensky, and Fran Leadon, AIA Guide to New York City, fifth ed. (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 80.
[2]Alex Gelfand, “The Development and Evolution of the Baruch Campus,” (including photographs of architectural decoration on the Meyers building).
[3] The Living New Deal. “Manhattan Criminal Court Building-New York NY.”
[4] Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes: Morrisania Hospital; A Tidy Relic of the 1920’s Looking for a New Use,” New York Times, July 15, 1990, p. R8.
[5] David W. Dunlap, “Christopher Gray, Who Chronicled New York Architecture, Is Dead at 66,” New York Times, March 14, 2017, p. B15.

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