The Fights for Bay Ridge’s First Hospitals

SUNY Downstate Bay Ridge
SUNY Downstate, 2013, via Google

At the turn of the twentieth century, Bay Ridge was growing. The subway wouldn’t open for another 16 years, but the idea had already been introduced, and with it had come a coincident if speculative building boom, as the old farms and fields began to be cut up into house-sized lots, to accommodate future underground commuters. The neighborhood needed basic infrastructure to meet the needs of its swelling population: not just fast and reliable transportation, but also schools, sewers, roads and hospitals.

“The hospitals that have supplied this vicinity known as Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, Bensonhurst and Coney Island, in the past have long been overcrowded,” a Bay Ridge-hospital advocate told the Brooklyn Eagle in April 1899. “Here is a popular section of the city containing a population of 30,000 people and during the summer months it approaches 100,000, with over twenty churches, many schools and no hospital.” (The Norwegian Hospital, founded in 1883 on William Street, in Red Hook, had moved to 43rd Street and Fourth Avenue by 1890. It was the precursor to today’s Lutheran Hospital. Also, ambulance service was available from Coney Island in the summertime.)

John Beet—a civically involved developer, as far as I can tell—donated the use of his house, on Sixtieth Street, near Second Avenue, as a healthcare facility. The Kent brothers, Edward and Henry, had famously built matching castle-like homes in the neighborhood, and Beet’s was their third, originally built by Henry for his daughter, Susan. (It’s unclear if this was also a castle, though it was described as a “mansion.”) Beet would donate its use for at least five years, and the hope was it would be “superseded by a large brick structure with all the conveniences and appliances of the most complete of modern hospitals.” Think of the Cinemax series The Knick, set at the same time.

Edward Kent home
Edward Kent’s castle-like home, near Third Avenue and 68th Street, 1902. Via Brooklyn Eagle

It took another year to secure the basic financing, at which point supporters of the Bay Ridge Hospital, Dispensary and Training School for Nurses thought it could be open within two months. But it was not until May 1, 1906—seven years almost to the day since the announcement of securing the Beet mansion—that the dispensary opened, “the only branch of the institution now ready for use,” the Eagle reported, though the paper again predicted the hospital proper might be open by that autumn. (A dispensary was, basically, a free clinic.)

By January 1908, however, still only the dispensary was open. “Since the opening,” the Eagle reported, “a large number of patients have been successfully treated and much good accomplished.” But the hospital directors weren’t thrilled with the location, just less than a mile from Norwegian Hospital and “so far away from the south end of Bay Ridge that often much valuable time is lost in getting a patient removed,” the Eagle added.

Believing that the section south of Seventieth street, between the waterfront and Fourteenth avenue[,] is destined to become truly metropolitan in the course of the next few years, and convinced that the population is bound to grow accordingly, [citizens of Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton] pledged themselves to give all the support that lay in their power to further the cause of a new hospital in that section.

Niels Poulson, a noted resident of the area, is best remembered for his home on Shore Road, between 88th and 89th streets, which was made of copper, theoretically indestructible, at least until the wreckers and their “relentless acetylene torches” got to it in 1931. Poulson died in May 1911, and left parts of his fortune to various local organizations, including $10,000 (very roughly, almost $250,000, adjusted for inflation—either a low cost or the Eagle missed a zero) to the Bay Ridge Hospital, which used the windfall to acquire land in the southern reaches of the neighborhood for a new hospital—at the corner of 92nd Street and Seventh Avenue, where in November 1913 the hospital association purchased 18 lots.

Victory Memorial Hospital site
Site of future Bay Ridge/Victory Memorial Hospital, map (detail), 1905. Numerous structures that would be demolished include greenhouses, a coop and sheds. (Many of the roads shown here never existed or no longer exist; everything east of Seventh Avenue became Dyker Park.) From the New York Public Library

“The directors…decided upon this location because they believed that the institution will be in a central position for service in not only Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, but [also] Fort Hamilton and Bath Beach,” the Eagle reported. Work was to begin immediately on a temporary dispensary, as the current one “is wholly inadequate for the present demands placed upon it. Over 10,000 free patients were treated last year…and the number to be taken care of is constantly increasing” (though it’s unclear if that dispensary were ever actually built).

The 60th Street clinic, in its 13 years or so of existence, served thousands of people every year, even though it was usually open only one or two hours a day. Patients were charged either nothing or a nominal fee of 10 cents ($1.50-$3, adjusted for inflation, depending on the year). “The dispensary is not a city institution,” the Eagle explained in 1917, “and is supported entirely by voluntary contributions and the members of the corporation.” It was free or truly affordable healthcare for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it, paid for by those who could—with civic pride.

Victory Memorial Hospital site
Future site of Victory Memorial Hospital, map (detail), ca. 1907. From the New York Public Library

Bay Ridge’s population continued to grow, and supporters were excited about the new site, which “will be an ideal one,” the Eagle later reported. “It overlooks the lower Bay, is situated on high ground, and is one of the most accessible in the whole of the district to be cared for. It is midway between Bath Beach and Bensonhurst and the Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton section and therefore of sufficient nearness to serve all the surrounding territory.”

The hospital’s Woman’s Auxiliary fundraised tirelessly, and, in 1915, the 92nd Street site was moving forward. “Plans are being drawn up by an architect for the new structure, and the time for the turning of the first spadeful of earth seems close at hand,” the Eagle reported. “Every new appliance known to the medical profession will be installed in the hospital, which will be so constructed that additions can be built when the room is needed.”

Of course, more money would be needed—another approximately $150,000 ($3.35 million, adjusted for inflation). A fundraising group of 400 well-connected locals—half women, half men—was put together in 1916 (the year the Fourth Avenue subway opened as far as 86th Street), with office space in what was then the Bay Ridge Theater building, a moviehouse on 72nd and Third.

In July 1917, a contract for hospital construction was finally issued, for one wing, of 60 beds, expected to cost $135,000 ($2.57 million, adjusted for inflation). (Across the street, construction had already begun on the Poly Prep Country Day School, which would welcome its first students to its Bay Ridge campus that year.) Like the old hospital and dispensary, the new one would be nondenominational.

Victory Memorial Hospital
Victory Memorial, architect’s drawing, 1931. Via Brooklyn Eagle

Ground was broken on August 6, 1917; hospital-association president Edward W. De Knight dug out the first scoop of dirt. But no proper ceremony was held until October, when Republican mayor John P. Mitchel [sic] came to lay the cornerstone. The walls of the first floor had already been built, and a temporary floor was installed for the ceremonies, which featured music by the boys band of St. Patrick’s Church.

The Mayor made short remarks—he had another engagement—then “laid the stone in workmanlike fashion, sealing up the foundations of the building records that will be historic souvenirs for the future,” the Eagle reported. “Included in these records were a list of all the people who had contributed to the hospital, lists of the offices or the hospital association and its auxiliaries, a copy of The Eagle, and coins and other souvenirs of 1917. The silver trowel used by the Mayor will be preserved by the hospital.”

Republican Governor Charles S. Whitman—who would lose reelection to Al Smith within a few months—visited in June 1918. He arrived by car from the Crescent Club, and the fife and drum corps from St. Patrick’s began to play.

The Governor, followed by staff and friends, began the fifty-foot walk to the entrance, over the roughly hewn ground. Attracted by the music all the little, dirty-faced, bedraggled youngsters in the neighborhood began a drive for the Governor’s party. They hadn’t the 10 cents admission price, but they got a dollar’s worth of enjoyment. Jimmy’s “Gee, dat’s the Guv’nor,” was chorused down the waiting line of Jimmies, Jakes and Joes.

“Yeh, but look who’s after him wid the medals and whiskers.” All eyes turned on Commodore Robert Pierrepont Foreshew. Never before did the little hero-worshippers have such a treat. In a crowd they followed the party to the very doors of the hospital, and then wandered back to the road to look at the eclipse of the sun. It was a day of marvels for the youngsters.

The United States entered WWI in April 1917, and more than 100,000 Americans died before the war ended, in November 1918. As this period coincided with the start of construction of the hospital, the idea was introduced, in February 1919, to rename the hospital Victory Memorial Hospital “and complete it as a monument to the soldiers of the section who died in service,” the Eagle reported. The local congressmember suggested “putting the names of the soldiers to whom it was to be dedicated on a bronze tablet to be placed on the building.”

Victory Memorial hospital
Victory Memorial, 1966. Via Brooklyn Public Library

The hospital went further “with the suggestion that this [hospital] be utilized as a permanent memorial which would be of service to all the people for all time to come,” the Eagle reported. “It was suggested that a special room be set aside as a memorial room, where war trophies of all kinds could be exhibited with bronze tablets on the walls, showing the names of all men who served, special tablets being erected for those who died or were wounded. In the archives of the room would be recorded a history of every man who entered the service, his birthplace and a record of his life up to the time of entering the service, with a history of various regiments and divisions in which southern Brooklyn men served.”

(Does anyone know if this ambitious plan was ever realized, even in part?)

In May, a fundraising campaign began, with a goal of $100,000; by June, $20,000 had been raised, an auspicious start. Two hundred volunteers went door-to-door, their efforts supplemented by public posters and home mailings.

Though the renaming idea “was strongly opposed” by some “who contended that a hospital would not be a fitting form of memorial,” as the Eagle had reported, by October it was settled that the renaming was official. There would be no more “Bay Ridge Hospital.”

Or would there?

On October 18, 1912, the old Lowe mansion on Ovington Avenue, between Third and Fourth, was bought by a group of local doctors and converted into the Bay Ridge Sanitarium, which had 12 beds. In 1920, a fireproof, one-story maternity ward was built; the following year, a nurses’ home was added; in 1925, the basement and two floors were reconstructed. By 1926, such additions had created space at the Sanitarium for 96 beds. That year, though, an area used for some maternity cases was destroyed by fire, and the board decided to tear down the whole old wooden building.

Bay Ridge Sanitarium
Architect’s drawing for Bay Ridge Sanitarium, 1930. Via Brooklyn Eagle

The Sanitarium would be rebuilt, though, bigger and better than ever—with five, fireproof floors. “The exterior of the building will be in artstone,” the Eagle reported. “The main entrance will be lined with Hauteville marble. The building will be equipped with the most modern hospital features. The plot is situated on a terrace, surrounded by large shade trees and beautified with shrubbery.”

The new building opened in March 1927, at a cost, with equipment, of $225,000 ($3.15 million, adjusted for inflation)—including a modern lab, an X-ray machine and up-to-date operating and delivery rooms. It had 90 beds, 25 staff members and surgeons, and would “carry on the function of a general hospital with special stress on surgical cases, nearly 80 percent of its cases being of this character last year,” the Eagle reported. (In July 1929, the hospital purchased 438 Ovington Avenue for use as its nurses’ home; this house, as far as I can tell, no longer exists.)

438 Ovington Avenue
438 Ovington, 1929. Via Brooklyn Eagle

In 1930, the Sanitarium was renovated and enlarged, expected to accommodate 100 beds, though the architectural drawing printed in the Eagle looks a little different than the building appears today. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact date, but sometime in the early 1940s, mentions of the Bay Ridge Sanitarium decrease in the Brooklyn Eagle, while those of “Bay Ridge Hospital” reappear, as the Sanitarium had adopted the old name Victory Memorial had discarded.

Bay Ridge Hospital
Bay Ridge Hospital, 1940, after its chimney was struck by lightning. Via Brooklyn Public Library

Victory Memorial Hospital
Victory Memorial, 1931. Via Brooklyn Public Library

Victory Memorial opened in pieces and stages throughout the 1920s, and it wasn’t entirely finished until 1931. “The last sack of plaster littering the spacious new halls….has been moved,” the Eagle reported on August 28, “and the canvas and long ladders of the painters have been carted away to other jobs. The hospital was completed yesterday,” after more than ten years of construction. No formal opening ceremony was held.

A clinic had opened in the basement in 1927; its patients were moved upstairs, starting in June 1931. “The hospital now has more than 60 beds, a modern maternity pavilion and an operating room outfitted with the latest innovations in lighting equipment and apparatus.” A children’s ward had another 18 beds.

Shore Road Hospital
Shore Road Hospital and sunken gardens, 1920. Via Museum of the City of New York

In the long time it took to build, it was no longer enough for the area. In addition to the Sanitarium on Ovington Avenue (by 1947, it was estimated that 70,000 people had been treated at this second Bay Ridge Hospital) a Shore Road Hospital opened, in 1927, in William F. Kenny’s old mansion on Shore Road, at 91st Street. “This former showplace of the Narrows driveway has undergone a great change in its interior, but the exterior and expansive gardens remain as they were,” Brooklyn Life reported.

The hospital, made necessary by the rapid development of Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton and the adjoining sections, is aiding materially in the reduction of congestion in the other hospitals of the district…The Shore Road Hospital was one of the first in this country to use and adopt the new form of anaesthesia of quinine and ether to relieve the mother of pain during childbirth.

Efforts are being made to create a free ward for the care and treatment of patients whose financial conditions bar them from private attention…The Shore Road Hospital grounds extend back on Ninety-first Street, nearly one thousand feet to Colonial Road. The building, with its red Spanish roof and spacious lawns and gardens gives the impression of a large estate rather than an institution dedicated to the curing of the sick and injured.

Behind the glass-enclosed vestibule is a large reception hall on the walls of which are hung rare paintings and tapestries. Oriental rugs of great beauty are added adornments…For convalescent patients there are three and one-half acres in the rear of the hospital. Here are to be enjoyed the sunken gardens, numerous flower-beds, statuary and fountains and a large expanse of green lawn. Tennis courts have also been provided.

There were modern operating rooms, Kenny’s old $50,000 organ, and rooms with fireplaces.

Norwegian Hospital Sunset Park
Norwegian Hospital, on Fourth Avenue and 43rd Street, ca. 1930. Via ELCA Archive

By 1954, Bay Ridge Hospital, Victory Memorial, Shore Road Hospital, Maimonides and Norwegian Hospital serviced the area with a combined 870 beds. (The Fort Hamilton Veterans Hospital, with 1,000 beds, opened in 1950, but it did not service the general community.) A report, however, stated that the area needed at least 1,020 beds, and it recommended Norwegian be enlarged and a new hospital built south of 70th Street, with 200 beds and the room and means to expand eventually to 400.

This isn’t quite what happened. Some of these facilities became much larger—Maimonides today has 711 beds, and Lutheran colonized much of Brooklyn west of Second Avenue, starting in 1967, and now has 404 beds plus numerous outpatient facilities.

Others closed. Shore Road Hospital was torn down in the late 70s, replaced by the towering Shore Hill Apartments, senior housing with medical facilities on site. In September 1982, a new certificate of occupancy was issued to 425–439 Ovington Avenue, the Bay Ridge Hospital site, listing 43 sleeping rooms on its upper floors for 75 people—likely the time that the hospital became the St. Nicholas Home, a senior-living facility, which it remains today.

Victory Memorial closed in 2007, despite a fight from the community and its elected officials, though the erstwhile pride of the community had at that point become an embarrassment. “The thing around here, if you get sick, is ‘Take me to Lutheran, even if I’m a block away from Victory Memorial,’” a local coffee-shop owner told the Times. (The building now operates as an urgent-care center under the aegis of SUNY Downstate.)

The list of former hospitals in New York City,” Suzanne Spellen once wrote on Brownstoner, “is much larger than the list of current hospitals.”

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