The river is a beautiful part of nature, home to wild plants and animals while also providing a means of transportation or recreation for people. Furthermore, it is a classic symbol of calm, peacefulness, and the renewal of life. It is no wonder, then, that hospital boards and their architects would choose to locate their buildings near rivers; what could be more comforting than placing something usually associated with illness and death near a symbolic source of life? Today there are three large hospitals located on the banks of New York City’s East River: Bellevue Hospital Center, NYU Langone Medical Center, and New York-Presbyterian Hospital; though each hospital was originally located further within the city, all three eventually moved out near the tranquil riverfront.
Hospitals are a vital part of society, even more so in a large city like New York. Their most important and obvious purpose is to provide medical care to the population it serves. In the nineteenth century, though, hospitals were not only used to medically treat patients, but they also “provided shelter, food, and care for those in need.1 This, at least, was true of the nineteenth century public hospital which had three functions; it could be seen as “a health care facility, a social service, and an agent of social control.”2 The same cannot be said for private hospitals, since they had a choice in which patients they accepted and what services they chose to provide. As for public hospitals, they accepted “all who needed care, regardless of their diagnoses, their behavior, their social characteristics, or their financial success;” they truly were healthcare-providing facilities, doing their work out of necessity, not just for payment.3 Public hospitals “dat[e] back to colonial times” as places to administer basic medical care, but only in recent years, have they, and private hospitals as well, become “elaborate and more technologically sophisticated” facilities, designed to take care of their patients as efficiently and thoroughly as possible.4
Bellevue Medical Center, located at 462 1st Ave, between 26th and 28th Streets and bordered by FDR Drive, remains “one of the most famous public medical institutions in the country.”5 At the time the modern day Bellevue building was constructed, FDR Drive had not yet been built, placing the hospital directly on the East River waterfront. With its initial function as a psychiatric hospital, Bellevue was obligated by hospital design guidelines to provide through its facilities “a feeling of openness, with emphasis on natural light and exterior view,” and so the riverfront became the perfect location.6 However, Bellevue was not always located on the East River. As the oldest hospital in the United States, Bellevue has a history that dates back to 1736 when it began as the Almshouse infirmary.7 It was not until 1811 that Bellevue moved to its river location when Mayor DeWitt Clinton purchased Belle Vue Place, the land that is currently at 28th Street and the East River; the buildings there became known as the Bellevue Establishment, and the medical building there was given the name Bellevue Hospital in 1825. In 1904, a reconstruction of Bellevue Hospital, including the buildings that remain today, began. In 1966, further construction was started, and in 1973 the hospital was officially completed.8
New York University Langone Medical Center, known before a 2008 donation from the Chairman of the Board of Trustees and his wife as NYU Medical Center, is another East River waterfront hospital. Just two blocks away from Bellevue, the Medical Center can be found at 550 1st Avenue between 30th and 32nd Streets, also bordered by FDR Drive.
Its history dates back to 1861 when the Medical Department of the University of the City of New York was founded. Interestingly, it shares part of its history with Bellevue Hospital, as, in 1898, NYU Medical College and Bellevue Hospital Medical College merged to create the University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College of New York University which was located where the present Bellevue Hospital is located now.9
Though close in proximity and history, the two hospitals have one major difference. NYU Langone is a mixture of a private hospital and a university hospital, giving it even more freedom to provide the services that it wants and to cater to specific types of patients, rather than a wide variety of community residents.
New York Hospital, also known as New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, is currently located at 525 East 68th Street. It stretches from York Avenue on the west, to the East River on the east, to 70th Street on the north.
Thirty-six blocks north of NYU Langone Medical Center and forty blocks north of Bellevue Medical Center, New York Hospital is the most well-known private hospital on the River and in New York City. It first opened in 1791,10 though it was founded “in alliance with Cornell University Medical College” in 1771.
Presbyterian Hospital was founded in 1868, but it was not until January 1, 1998 that New York Hospital and Presbyterian Hospital would merge together to make one large hospital.12 Before the two hospitals united, back in 1904, the decision was made to move New York Hospital from a previous location that had a “lack of ‘sufficient light, air, and sunshine” to the riverbank. At the time, “medical leaders had almost mystical faith in the power of breezes and sunshine,” which were both abundant near the East River, in avoiding ailments and healing existing sicknesses.13
It would seem that the East River and rivers in general must have some therapeutic properties, if not actual spiritual benefits that lead to improved health and the healing of diseases and infections in hospital patients; why else would there be three prominent hospitals located along its shoreline? Bellevue Hospital, NYU Langone Medical Center, and New York-Presbyterian Hospital each chose to locate their facilities on the riverfront as a means of making the patients’ experiences more comfortable and possibly even more healthful. Bellevue, a public hospital under control of the city, is the hospital located furthest south on the river. It and the private, university-associated NYU Langone Medical Center are both part of the Kips Bay neighborhood. New-York Presbyterian Hospital, located much further north on the river on the Upper East Side, has become “famous for its elegant architecture, fashionable private patients, and high-level medical research.”14 However, it still shares similar physical characteristics with the other two East River hospitals. Though each is very different in terms of responsibilities, guidelines, and even patient demographics, they all saw the benefits of being in an environment surrounded by nature, fresh air, and river views.
Guidelines for Design and Construction of Hospital and Health Care Facilities. Washington,
D.C.: American Institute of Architects, 2001.
"History - New York Presbyterian Hospital." New York Presbyterian Hospital. Web. 30 Oct. 2011.
Opdycke, Sandra. No One Was Turned Away: the Role of Public Hospitals in New York City since 1900. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Opdycke, Sandra. Private Choices, Public Obligations: New York City and Its Hospitals since 1900. 1995.
"Our History." NYU Langone Medical Center. Web. 30 Oct. 2011.
Rosner, David. A Once Charitable Enterprise: Hospitals and Health Care in Brooklyn and New York, 1885-1915. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge UP, 1982.
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