Happy Holidays From Bellevue Hospital

The old Administration Building at Bellevue Hospital, America’s oldest public hospital, is one of my favorite buildings in New York City.

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However, if you’ve never been to Bellevue before, visiting its First Avenue address today might lead you to think I’m a bit nuts. Sure, the I.M. Pei exterior is OK, but what the heck happened to the beautiful old McKim, Mead and White facade dating back to 1940??

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As one of New York City’s busiest hospitals, Bellevue received a much needed expansion in 2005 to accommodate more patients, leading to the significant redesign. But here’s the thing – the original facade wasn’t torn down…

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It still exists exactly where it was before, now enclosed in a beautiful, multi-tiered atrium:

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Click for huge panorama!

There is nothing more fascinating to me than seeing a building facade encapsulated within another building. When you examine any outdoor structure, part of your judgement stems from such utilitarian concerns as its relationship to its surroundings, how it has weathered the elements, and so on.

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When you see a building divorced from these elements, the way you view it changes substantially – it almost becomes an enormous sculpture, to be admired and reflected upon.  The MET has a few period facades, and I find them equally compelling.

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But why write about Bellevue in the week leading up to Christmas? Simple – they’ve got some of the best holiday decorations in the city:

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I’ve been meaning to write a post about the old Administration Building at Bellevue for some time. Then, last week, I was walking by, and noticed the great decorations in the lobby. I see a LOT of Christmas decorations in my travels across the city, but I must say, Bellevue’s really impressed me, and I figured this was a great time to show off both the building and their holiday efforts.

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Front and center is a gorgeous, towering Christmas tree, decorated in gold and red. A piano is nearby, and I believe live music is played throughout the month.

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But what I really love is how they’ve decorated the building exterior as if it just snowed:

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Click for huge panorama!

Snow-covered pine trees and lit up reindeer decorate the ledge, along with greenery in the normally empty urns:

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A profile view of the lobby – it’s equally fascinating to view the old building facade from the vantage point of those balconies:

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Click for huge panorama!

Among my favorite details are the two doors flanking the main entrance, whose balconies are now decorated with laurel. The first was for “Employes”…

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The second brought patients to the Waiting Room.

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I also love the archway over the main entrance (you can see it in both historical photos above)…

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…which depicts a Native American and a Dutch Settler (I believe), along with a symbol of New York dating to the early 1700’s.

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You can see a more vibrant rendition among the coats of arms decorating One Broadway. The beavers are meant to represent the fur trade, while the flour barrels represent agriculture. A windmill blade divides the symbol:

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Bellevue is currently celebrating its 275th anniversary, and on display is a gas lantern dating back to approximately 1880. One of only three that still exist, this one was located on the Laundry Building at 29th Street. The lanterns were lit each night by a groundskeeper, then put out each morning.

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Two additional lanterns, original to the Administration Building, are mounted beside the main entrance:

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The history of Bellvue, from its origins as a six bed infirmary down by City Hall in 1776 to its current status as a 800 bed hospital receiving over 100,000 ER visits and 500,000 clinic visits annually, is simply too immense to get into here.

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However, if you’ve never been, do yourself a favor and just take a trip to Bellevue to see it in person – I guarantee the building will take your breath away. Even better, walk through the main entrance and you’ll find a neat exhibit on the hospital, along with a very informative pamphlet briefly detailing the hospital’s 275 year history to fill you in.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Holidays to all!!

-SCOUT

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32 comments

  1. That…is absolutely amazing. I’d heard of Bellevue, but I had no idea its architecture was so fascinating!

  2. I’m impressed with this! Merry Christmas and keep up the good work!

  3. Hey! You did an article on my workplace and I didn’t even get a call! :)

    I enjoyed reading this. It’s funny how I walk through that lobby every day, and have never noticed the way they decorated the front of the old building facade with the snow etc. Even I can’t miss the tree though.

    Happy Holidays!

    -GWC

  4. That is so charming! I really love the effect of the snow.

    I, too, love when an old facade is incorporated inside, as in the European Sculpture Court at the Met:
    http://www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com/bigmap/manhattan/centralpark/metropolitanmuseumofart/europeansculpturecourt/index.htm

  5. “Bellevue is currently celebrating its 275th anniversary”

    Wow! My state just turned 150 this year.

  6. Nice article and so impressive buildings.

  7. I appreciate the preservation aspect of encasing facades in this manner (where destruction would be the only other result). However, the addition is simply horrendous. It’s a cold, faceless wall slamming up against the property line with a low, oppressive entrance. Compare with the original MM&W building — its warm and welcomes the visitor in with embracing arms.

  8. I will never understand how an architect can cover up a beautiful facade like that and thinks it looks good. Who oks this? What a beautiful building.

    • 99 out of 100 times, I’d agree with you. However, when it comes to public health needs and saving lives, it’s hard to argue the need for historic preservation as strongly, and I think they struck a good balance by keeping the original facade. Now, would it have been better if they had styled it on the old McKim Mead White look? Absolutely, but it seems like people simply cannot do that sort of work anymore.

      • No question about the publics health, but it still amazes me that we always hear the same ‘that type of work cant be done anymore” why not its 2012. Atleast the originial was preserved, keep up the great work.

        • Chris, I don’t get why you can’t still do it either.

        • As an architecture graduate who plans on continuing towards a masters in historic preservation, I’ll give my theory as to why that type of work can’t be done anymore.

          First is the cost. Constructing buildings like they did in the good old days is very, very expensive. Part of the reason is the quality of building materials they used back then. Sometimes, materials are even impossible to get now, like old-growth timber. Another aspect contributing to the cost is that the quality of craftsmanship they had is hard and expensive to come by. As they say, they don’t make things like they used to anymore.

          Bearing this in mind, the other concern is honesty. With the different building technologies and materials we have today, how could an architect try to replicate a previous period in our architectural history without it coming across as fake or contrived?

          And here comes my own opinion, hehe. I agree, the architecture of the original building is gorgeous, but I feel we should let the past be the past and preserve it for future generations instead of trying to reproduce it. Better yet, celebrate it AND adapt it for our ever evolving society, as they did with Bellevue Hospital.

          • Interesting points, many of the newer buildings today are designed like they are some kind of art project with all the angles and glass. I dont like many of the newer buildings b/c of this.

        • The bottom line on why it can’t be done anymore is cost. It actually -can- be done, it just costs so much more now to do it the ‘old fashioned way’ than it would to use more modern and less expensive materials. Case in point after the earthquake here in the northeast, The National Cathedral is going to require upwards of $8 million of work to redo the stone that was so painstakingly fitted together without the aid of mortar, each block has to be removed (in order) and then either fixed or replaced, then put back together, taking a long time to do, and there aren’t many stonemasons around that can do the work anymore..they’re not a ‘dime a dozen’ like they used to be.

          In this instance, even though they encapsulated the old façade in glass and steel, they’re preserving the old within the new for future generations, and that’s not a bad thing, considering acid rain and erosion of other similar façades around the city. It will be able to be enjoyed and seen for what it was, for a long time to come.

    • It’s really very well done. When you walk through the modern entrance doors you get an impressive sense of the old facade’s stateliness that was harder to realize when it was viewed in the open air. The new entryway frames the old quite gracefully.
      Also, the new structure is home to some much-needed working space.

  9. I’m just glad they didn’t tear it down. Maybe some happy day in the future, it will be the public facade for the building once again (I can dream, can’t I?) I’m just happy it’s still there. So many beautiful old buildings are gone for good. I’m glad NYC got this one right.

  10. I am certainly going to visit next time I’m in New York.

  11. I hardly ever comment because a constant stream of “Wow, awesome!” doesn’t seem like it would be much of a contribution. But just for once: Wow, that is awesome!

  12. I absolutely love this building too! One of my favorite (positive) examples of merging the new and the old. But I’ve never seen the beautiful holiday decorations! Thanks for the post:)

  13. Of course they could built like this again, they just need the will It is done all the time in restoration projects. And I do love that coat of arms… beavers and barrels! Sounds like a great party!

  14. Scout, your blog is one of my favorite places to stop on the internet! Thanks for all of your great work!

    As someone with a Masters in Historic Preservation, I’d like to add to Sleepy’s comment above. His/her point about the “honesty” of new construction vs. old/original construction is right on as far as general principles of historic preservation go.

    However, I HATE when an architect thinks the best way to differentiate new from old is a big glass box, even if that architect is I.M. Pei. A glass box is devoid of interest or warmth.

    Happy Holidays to all!

  15. I was a chaplain at Bellevue this summer and the old Administration building has so many cool spots to explore and see. Our office was on the second floor of the Admin building in Chapel Hall, you could feel the history in that place. Good to see the old lady dressed up for the holiday season.

  16. One reason for the steel/glass exterior protecting the old facade is that the materials of which the old facade is made are subject to deterioration from today’s more polluted, acidic air & also are difficult to keep clean whereas the new facade has window-washing scaffold supports built into it. This way, the outer facade stays clean & stands up to its environment, while the beautiful old facade is protected from the dirt and the elements and therefore preserved.

    You ought to go see the original building of Beth Israel Hospital, Bellevue’s neighbor, especially the lobby. It has a dramatic stairway you’ll love! The entrance faces the park behind the hospital, between 1st & 2nd Aves.

  17. Jude —

    Last time I was in Beth Israel, that entrance was being “renovated.” Was the staircase left intact?

  18. Awesome blog. I just spent a good hour or more here. Came here from Distant Voices, Vibrating Electrons

    I love what you do. I live in LA and work in an historic building, and frequently get calls from location scouts. Seeing it from your point of view is fascinating.

  19. Those exterior lamps remind me of some I’ve seen on the St. George branch of the NYPL on Staten Island (right outside the ferry terminal). It’s a beautiful old building with stunning harbor views that retains (what I assume is) pretty much all of its original detail. It might be worth checking out in your travels.

  20. They may have kept the facade, but the apparently tore down the magnificent wrought iron gate in the foreground of the 5th shot. :(

    I wonder how it’s going to affect the old building having the lower half encased in the Pei addition, while the temple-front top part is exposed to the elements? And I wonder how much damage the Pei addition did to the fabric of the old building at the attachment points–places where one material joins another are *always* sites of water damage.

  21. This is a great post, but……how about an address? Where IS this place, please? I only know about the Bellevue on 1st Ave.

  22. This is a great post, but……how about an address? Where IS this place, please? I only know about the Bellevue on 1st Ave.

  23. This reminds me of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Norlin Library. Originally built in 1940 with a magnificent two-story atrium on the east (rear) side, the later addition encased it, fully intact, in 1977. It was better than destroying it, and certainly better than marring the even more beautiful west front entrance…but what an amazing place it would have been on a sunny Colorado day with all that glass!

    Original rear facade: http://digital.denverlibrary.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15330coll22/id/9114

    Today: http://collegedesigner.com/images/stories/elements/norlin-library-6.jpg

    Front entrance, for reference: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4076/4935746853_949fda0805_b.jpg

  24. My interest in the Bellve View Hospital is that my Father at the age of 23 and a Bricklayer emigrated to the USA in 1923 and worked on the building of this Hospital for quite some time before returning back to the UK many years later continuing bricklaying until his death in 1960 aged 60.

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