I was scouting around the West 50’s recently when I noticed a really interesting building on West 59th I’d never seen before, tucked away in the shadows of the bland modern high-rises surrounding it.
The building looked to be in great shape despite its age, and two features in particular caught my eye…
First, this odd cone-shaped roof, which appeared to be equal parts glass, tin, and tiles…
…Second, and more revealing, the sign above the door, which identifies the building as…
The William J. Syms Operating Theatre of the (adjacent) Roosevelt Hospital, built in 1891. In fact, this was once the very first modern OR in the United States:
William J. Syms, a gun merchant, was the patient of renowned Roosevelt Hospital surgeon Charles McBurney, and after a successful operation costing $300, sent a whopping $3,000 as payment. McBurney returned the money with a note that he couldn’t accept it. Years later, when Syms died, he left $350,000 to Roosevelt Hospital, specifying that $250,000 be used to create an “operating theatre” under McBurney’s direction.
Here, a picture of the operating theater from the February 25, 1893 issue of Harper’s Weekly (just two years after it was built)…
…and the same angle from today:
The operating theater was designed to the recommendations of Gustav Neuber, a German surgeon who was essentially the first to advocate that OR’s be sterile environments. He wrote a book detailing his findings, suggesting the use of non-porous, easily washable building materials, tables and shelves of metal and glass, minimal furniture, and avoiding corners where dust could accumulate. Here, a picture from an unspecified date (you car nuts might be at least able to identify the decade)…
The operating theater was in use for 30 years, then became a blood bank. It was abandoned in the 1970’s and fell into ruin. Here, more pictures from the 1893 Harper’s article:
Doctors and nurses at work:
Inside the halls:
A sterilization area (I think):
As developers began building up the block in the 1980’s, a restoration project was started to save the Syms Operating Theatre. Salvage yards were scoured for the correct type of brick, the enormous red oak doors were repaired, and the central skylight was replaced, ultimately bringing it back from the dead:
As I was taking a pictures, a guard came out and told me an interesting fact. As you walk up to the front door, you’ll notice a break in the fence to your right…
…and if you look closely, you’ll see a path leading to a cement area. According to the guard, members of the Roosevelt family (who had donated money and land to found the hospital) were once buried here, but their bodies have since been removed.
I’m curious then if this is just a garden ornament, or something left over from their grave:
As the two enormous high rises were built over the operating theatre, the decision was made to keep it free-standing. In other words, you could completely tear down the bland modern apartment building that straddles it, and the OR would remain like it has been for over 100 years.
Though the insides have been completely gutted, the gorgeous exterior stands as a monument to an important achievement in medical history, and thankfully looks like it will be around for quite a while to come.
PS – For a more detailed history on the Syms Operating Theatre, check out this lengthy article here.
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