Monday, January 26, 2009

The Samuel R. Smith Infirmary

The current state Samuel R. Smith Infirmary building tells a sad story which highlights the failures of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as the generally sad state of historic preservation in general.

In 1861, a one-room infirmary was founded on Staten Island. It was the first private hospital on the island; the population at the time was 25,000. The infirmary was named in honor of Samuel R. Smith, a prominent local doctor who was heavily involved in charity care for the poor. Over the next few decades, the infirmary would move several times, occupying successively larger structures in order to be able to care for more patients. In 1870, it moved into the late Dr. Smith's former residence.

After years of fundraising, in the late 1880s enough money was raised to build a new structure on Castleton Avenue. Alfred E. Barlow was chosen as architect. He designed the new castle-styled building according to prevailing treatment modalities of the day, with all four corners occupied by rounded towers. This was thought to cut down on the spread of disease. In 1890, the infirmary moved from Dr. Smith's house to this new building, which was opened with some great fanfare.

In 1917, the Infirmary was renamed The Staten Island Hospital, a nod to the fact that it served all of the island. For decades, the campus would expand, adding several new pavilions, nurses' quarters, a physical plant, and other buildings. Then in 1979, the hospital abandoned the campus, moving into a brand-new, state of the art facility on Seaview Avenue. Thus began the decline of the gorgeous Barlow-designed infirmary building.

In 1983, the Landmarks Preservation Committee considered the infirmary for landmark status. Nothing ever came of the discussion, and over the next several years, alternate development plans were floated, some of which would maintain the character of the building, some of which would not. Work was even begun on turning one of the other buildings on the campus, a six-story brick structure, into a condo complex. This was shortly halted, and the entire campus started to fall into ruin. The infirmary building had been gutted, leaving very little of the interior character intact, but no motions had been made to stabilize it.

Over the next twenty-five years, the infirmary became prey to the whims of graffiti vandals, arsonists, and perhaps worst of all, the elements. Token efforts were made to stabilize parts of the building and to seal it against intruders, but these were not terribly successful. Today, the infirmary is in terrible shape. Most walls are covered with tags, and garbage is strewn about. Huge gaps in the roof allows water to invade, and floors are collapsing. The only interior details which remain intact are sections of the ornate pressed-tin ceiling, and the gorgeous cast-iron staircase.

It is sad to see the noble notion of preservation fail as badly as it has here, and the LPC is at least partly to blame. Because of their 1983 deliberations, which did not achieve anything, they are unwilling to consider the building at present. The property owners have been negligent; with no legislative prod forcing them to maintain the building, it is quickly falling into ruin. Whether it can be saved now is anybody's guess. Sadly, I'm guessing that it will either be demolished by the hand of man, or just left to demolition by neglect.

Here's a peek at what it looks like today.

The grand iron staircase, first floor. Note the remaining pieces of tin ceiling still attached.

Detail of one of the cast iron columns supporting the staircase.

Staircase as seen from the second floor landing. Note the wooden finials on the banister, still very much intact.

A half-collapsed room in one of the rounded corners. The beams on the far side of the room show signs of fire damage.

A smaller staircase leads up to the attic.

The attic. The floor is caved in throughout much of it, and the superstructure of the building is literally collapsing in upon itself.

Even despite the graffiti and water damage, the grandeur of the whalebone arching in this lofty attic is quite evident.

The first floor lobby. Even gutted and ravaged by water and vandals, the beauty of the building shows through in subtle ways.