Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Brian Lehrer Follow-Up - Seaview Hospital

So a few people have written to me asking for a post on Seaview Hospital, more recently known as Sea View Hospital, which I spoke about during my recent appearance on Brian Lehrer Live. Unfortunately, I have not made a trip out there in some time, and have no recent photos from the womens' ward pavilions, but here are some scans of negatives shot a couple years back in the four remaining wards.

In 1905, the City of New York set aside funds in order to build an institution to combat the "white plague" of tuberculosis; a site was selected on Todt Hill on Staten Island, and Raymond F. Almirall was given the commission to design the hospital. Almirall incorporated current trends in the treatment of tuberculosis into his design, at the center of which were eight pavilions, four for men, and four for women. The pavilions were spaced in a fan-like formation in order to maximize the amount of sunlight that reached each one. They were light and airy, with most floors consisting of a double-loaded hallway leading up to a large dayroom / dormitory; ample windows all around would ensure that the curative sea air would reach the patients.

By 1909, construction had begun on the hospital. The eight ward pavilions were arranged semi-circularly around a central administrative building, and the hospital also boasted a power plant, a nurses' building, and a cafeteria, as well as a laboratory. The buildings were joined by a walkable steam tunnel system, most of which exists to this day, and some of which is still in use. In 1913, the first patients were admitted.

By 1920, the hospital was overcrowded due to an increase in infection rates; plans were drawn, and additional dormitory buildings were added. By the 1930s, the patient population topped 2,000. It was at this hospital, one of the first municipal tubercular sanatoriums in America, that doctors finally ironed out the first curative treatments for TB, the Isoniazid drugs. Their diligence would be the hospital's downfall, as the patient population rapidly declined. By the 1960s, the hospital began undergoing conversion to a geriatric facility; in the early 1970s, the ward pavilions were emptied, and in 1973 the four mens' wards were demolished. In their place rose utilitarian modern architecture. The four womens' ward pavillions were left to rot next door, slowly falling apart in the sea air.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Almirall's design are the terra cotta murals on the balconies of the top floors of the pavilions. Originally on the exteriors of the buildings, and easily visible from the next ward over, in the 1930s the murals were partially eclipsed by porches built around the balconies with little thought.

Almirall himself made the initial sketches for the murals. He wanted to provide something symbolic of the healing taking place at the hospital, while at the same time something aesthetically pleasing for the patients. What he came up with was a bevy of themed elements which fit together beautifully - on a background of gold and falling green seashells, figures of doctors and nurses with their patients are framed with shields displaying symbols of medicine, as well as symbols of the sea, wreathed in fabrics.

To translate his designs into a physical reality, Almirall enlisted Joost Thooft & Labouchere, a company in continuous operation in Delft, Holland, since 1653, originally under the name De Porceleyne Fles. The murals were created using the sectile technique, originally introduced during the 1900 Paris World's Fair. Sectile work is unique in that each piece of terra cotta was shaped to fit the lines of the design, instead of the design being divided over a number of tiles; it was used exclusively by this company from 1900 to 1910. Therefore, the murals at Sea View Hospital are a rarity, and are considered the best example of sectile work in America. Each piece was fired in a charcoal kiln, giving each a unique firing pattern; this accounts for the diversity one sees even in the gold blocks. Sadly, today the tiles are crumbling from the walls of the last four pavilions; minimal efforts have been made to save them. I sincerely hope that, at some point, what's salvageable can be preserved.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Brian Lehrer Live

Last Wednesday, I had an opportunity to appear on Brian Lehrer Live alongside Kevin Walsh from Forgotten NY to talk about guerrilla preservation and, in specific, Admiral's Row and Staten Island's Seaview Hospital. Here's a video of the segment:

There are a number of things I wish I could have gone into further detail on; in particular, I had prepared some little talks on the history of the sectile technique in terra cotta, in use from 1900-1910 and of which the murals at Seaview Hospital are some of the late examples of. I was also planning on talking at length about Admiral's Row, and in particular, about recent developments with the Section 106 proceedings on the property. As I was not able to, I will post a follow-up blog in the next few days, with some more information, but in the meantime, I would like to point everybody's attention to the official Army webpage on which further information is posted.

Being my first time on TV, I was a wee bit nervous, but I think the interview went well. The hardest part was not jumping in with epithets and invectives when Kevin brought up scumbag developer Bruce Ratner; since the interview was about preservation and old buildings, I didn't want to stray too far off topic. I'll get the Seaview photos up soon; they're several years old and shot on film, so they need to be scanned and edited before being posted on the internet.

On another note, apologies to you, my readers, for the lapse in posts - I've been too busy off taking photos and studying sites to edit any or get them up on the blog. In the next few weeks, though, I plan on posting a handful of new locations in New York and beyond.