“At a meeting of Citizens held at the Rooms of Major Flint S. Kidder, April 6th, 1827, convened for the purpose of taking into consideration the expediency of establishing a Dispensary in the Northern section of the City, and taking measures to carry into effect the same, Alderman Peters was called to the Chair.”
—from the minutes of the first meeting of the Northern Dispensary’s board of directors
During our own time of great attention to healthcare, let us take a look at an institution that had served New York City since the 18th century. First established in the neighborhood of today’s City Hall, a dispensary meant to offer medical treatment to the poor had been operating since 1791.
Throughout the eighteenth century, fields, streams, and farmland had made up Greenwich Village. New York’s population grew, especially after opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Inhabitants of the Village increased too; one reason was that residents fled epidemic diseases, such as yellow fever and cholera, which spread quickly in the crowded conditions of Lower Manhattan. Bankers, shipowners, merchants, and citizens-of-means built townhouses in the Village, which was still the country in the 1820s, to live in less-crowded conditions with trees and open space. To serve them, tradespeople moved there too; many, however, could not afford healthcare.
Recognizing this, in 1827 a group of Greenwich Village residents and doctors thought a free medical clinic would help meet the needs of those who could not afford medical attention. On April 27, 1827 these concerned citizens drew up the articles of incorporation for a dispensary. Article 2 defined the clinic’s purpose: “To furnish medicine and medical attendance gratuitously, to such of the inhabitants as may be proper objects of this charity.”
Because Greenwich Village was the northernmost part of New York City that had the greatest number of inhabitants by the late 1820s, the Northern Dispensary got its name from its northern location. At the time, most of the city’s population was concentrated at the southernmost tip of the island. In its first year 3,296 patients were treated by the clinic. Grants from the New York State legislature, city funds, and private donations helped the Dispensary carry out its work.
After operating out of temporary facilities at various locations, over its first four years, the Dispensary needed a permanent home. For the sum of $4,700, a carpenter named Henry Bayard, and a mason named John Tucker built a permanent two-story home for the dispensary in 1831. Complaining of a winter cold, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) was one of those treated here in 1837. Sitting on a triangular plot of land that was donated by the city for the Dispensary, the city stipulated that the Dispensary was to provide care for the “worthy poor,” which made up an increasing portion of the Village’s inhabitants. To this day, the building’s deed carries a restriction that it must be used for dispensing medical care for the poor.
Designed in a restrained Georgian style, the dispensary’s triangular-shaped building has the puzzling distinction of having two sides on the same street. Or more accurately, two of its sides face two different streets with the same name, Waverly. Above the dispensary’s main door, a marble plaque states the Dispensary’s date of incorporation and construction, and its mission: “Heal the sick.”
Patient numbers had grown great enough by 1855 that the Dispensary’s the trustees authorized a third story be added to the building. This addition allowed the Dispensary to serve the increasing number of cases. It is possible to see the visable change in brick color from the second to third floors. By 1886 the Dispensary was treating 13,809 patients annually. Caring for the city’s poor and sick was done primarily on an inpatient basis until 1920, when outpatients began to outnumber inpatients. In the Dispenary’s early years, a group of 20 physicians and surgeons oversaw care.
Medical and dental care accounted for equal parts of the services at the Dispensary by the early 1940s. During its history the Northern Dispensary had treated many kinds of illnesses; but by the 1960s outpatient dental care was the only service provided. George Whitmore, a Village resident, was refused dental treatment because he had AIDS in 1986. Mr. Whitmore brought a lawsuit against the Dispensary; and New York City’s Human Rights Commission fined the clinic $47,000.
Three years later financial difficulties forced the Dispensary to announce it was closing. In 1990 the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York bought the building. Plans were made to turn it into a hospice for AIDS patients; but, surprisingly, Village residents objected and the plan never came to fruition.
Eight years after buying the property the Archdiocese sold the building to William Gottleib, a well-known, reclusive investor in Greenwich Village real estate; he had a history of buying buildings, but not using them, a practice known as ‘warehousing.’ Some observers have noted that warehousing buildings, though giving a shabby appearance from neglect, has had a positive side to it. If property owners had not held onto their buildings, albeit unused, they could very well have been demolished, and replaced by soulless and generic new construction. The Northern Dispensary could not have faced such a fate; it stands within the Greenwich Village Historic District. Buildings within any NYC Historic District cannot be altered in exterior appearance from when the District was designated.
Mr. Gottleib continues warehousing the Dispensary. The windows were covered in paper in the fall of 2016; prior to this concealment, the abandoned dental equipment could be seen from the sidewalk. Work permits were displayed in its windows; and workmen were seen entering and exiting the building. The nature of their work is not known; and the Northern Dispensary has remained unused and vacant since 1999 to the publication of this article in the spring of 2020.
Read more about Greenwich Village with our other articles.
Subway Art: “The Greenwich Village Murals”
A Bit of Old Spain in Greenwich Village
A Greenwich Village Townhouse and Garden
Seeing Something New in the Village
Our Gay Village Walking Tour includes a stop at the Northern Dispensary. Take the Tour; Know More!
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT CREDITED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2020