Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Last Remnant of the Original St. Mary's Getting a Makeover

This renovation is old news, but it was new to me. In the late 19th Century, a spectacular new hospital was built on St. Marks Place between Rochester and Buffalo by the Diocese of Brooklyn. St. Mary's was founded under the guidance of builder-Bishop John Loughlin in 1867 in Cobble Hill (Loughlin also oversaw the founding and building of St. John's College and the unfinished cathedral that became St. John the Baptist in Bed-Stuy), but it quickly outgrew its surroundings, and construction began in Crown Heights in 1879. The block-long complex included a nursing school, Shevlin Hall, whose buildings were spared when the original hospital was replaced with a more modern building in the 1970s (pictured above).

Still called St. Mary's, this hospital served Crown Heights until 2005, when its bankrupt parent, St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers, was forced to close it on account of declining patient numbers. The sad irony is that this neighborhood institution, whose closing occasioned a lengthy retrospective in the NYTimes and put hundreds of residents out of work, was done in by trends which are typically harbingers of positive neighborhood change, specifically reduced gun crime and a reduction in AIDS-related cases.

What's left now is a huge, vaguely brutalist concrete hospital building that seems likely to be demolished (unless it is re-opened as a hospital soon, and there are no plans to do that) and Shevlin Hall, the stately nursing quarters. The Hall garnered considerable attention from the other end of Crown Heights in 2005, when Bruce Ratner considered purchasing it to move affordable housing units required by the state for his Atlantic Yards project off-site. The building is currently under construction for residential use, potentially assisted living, and it looks as though Shevlin Hall will outlive not one but two hospital buildings, not to mention the hospital itself.

On an unrelated note, I hope Mayor Bloomberg views his close victory as evidence of the considerable damage he did to New Yorkers' trust with his term limits extension, and not as a lesson in the power of wealth to buy nearly anything.


  1. I've always loved that building. I was living a few blocks from there when the hospital closed, and I had hoped that this building would be saved. When I biked by the other day, I was glad to see that it was being worked on.

    There's something to the style of older hospital construction that got lost to the brutalist and other cheap utilitarian style that hit hospital construction in the 1950s. St. Mary's was a great example of those two clashing styles.

    The other great neighborhood example of this is the old Brooklyn Jewish Hospital complex. The buildings that face Classon and Prospect are of an older style, the still empty radiology building around back on St. Marks is not.

    A lot of hospital design has changed due to real medical concerns (try getting a wheel chair into that old St. Mary's building), but the fact that we re-purpose these old buildings and leave the newer ones to rot, points to the fact that we've lost something in the feel of hospital contruction.

  2. In my original comment I referred to a wing of the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital as part of my theory that ugly post war medical buildings were less attractive for redevelopment. I walked down that block again today, and realized that I was wrong about a couple of things.

    There is a building that was part of the complex on St. Marks that has been renovated. It too is of the older style, but it is less detailed and grand than the Prospect side.

    More importantly, what I was calling the "radiology building" appears to be three distinct buildings that are currently being redeveloped. I took a quick look at the building permits to see what the scope of the work is and when they were issued.

    The main (taller) part of the wing's permit for work was issued around the end of July. I jotted some notes down this is a close paraphrase of the permit:

    Convert existing public building into accessory parking with apartments above. Cut and demolish part of the rear as shown in plans.

    I looked through the gate, and see that there's already a huge hole in the back of the building, and that the first floor is being gutted for parking. The building has already had the awful blue plastic (fiberglass?) stuff they used in the fifties and sixties in window openings removed. That change alone makes the building look less bad. Inside, it looks like some internal wall framing is taking place.

    Another building in the wing, recognizable by a spray painted over Interfaith Emergency awning, is being redeveloped into supermarket space. From the permit:

    Convert existing building from car service station to supermarket

    There is a real estate sign on that part of the building saying that the space is 15-20,000 sq feet, and comes with 25 parking spaces. Looks like more groceries are coming to the neighborhood - its an open question as to what kind of market it will be.

    I'm a little unclear as to the fate of the third building, this one is a single story street front building that says "radiation therapy" on it. My guess is that it is covered under the permit for the main part of the wing, and is going to be demolished to become space for parking, either for the supermarket or the apartment building, though its unclear as it looks untouched thus far. No loss if they do tear it down though, that building is about as ugly as they come.

  3. I was born at St. Mary's Hospital in the original building and was there as a nurse when we transferred patients from that building to the new one. It is a shame that the hospital closed. The building was not that old. I have so many great memories of living at Shevlin Hall and working in the hospital.

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