Rat poison is stuffed into metal grates in the sidewalk and warning signs are posted on the building. A tuft of grass grows out of a large, blacked-out sign that once read, “AMBULANCE.” The windows on this former hospital were boarded up recently after Sam Williams, a neighbor, reported that kids were smoking marijuana inside and homeless people were sleeping there at night.
“This is just haunting the neighborhood here,” said Krystyna Kobrosky, a local nurse. “It’s been like this since they got out. It looks pretty creepy.”
This is the scene outside the spray-painted façade of the former St. Vincent’s Midtown hospital straddling West 51st and 52nd Streets, closed abruptly in 2007 and left to rot after the new owner ran out of money. Now, after four years of decay, the property owner has promised to begin work on the old brick building, which he plans to turn into condominiums.
Neighbors are happy to see the hollowed-out hospital finally receive some attention from its owners. The neglected building has caused a series of problems for neighbors over the last few years.
“Rats. They come from there,” said Victor Urrea, a long-time employee at a paint shop adjoining the old hospital, who says that while extermination attempts have been largely successful, he still sees rats from time to time.
Last summer, the building flooded. “The water was so high. It was three stories high. They were pumping the water for two days straight,” said Samuel Williams, who has lived across from the hospital since 1976. “You could smell the mold and mildew [across the street]…there were kids walking by…you killin’ em!”
But after years of decomposition, there are new signs of life. A team of surveyors walked the abandoned halls with flashlights last week, and men in hardhats have started visiting most weekdays, neighbors say. But while the Chetrit Group, the primary owner of the site, is tight-lipped about its plans, a spokeswoman for State Sen. Tom Duane said Chetrit will begin to gut and renovate this month.
“Anyone who walks by will notice that this will no longer be a blight and an eyesore,” said Lisa Daglian, who is co-chair of the business licensing committee on Community Board 4. “It has not been maintained. It’s dark, dank, dirty and it’s dangerous,” she said.
It’s an ignominious end for a hospital that once symbolized hope in this part of town. The hospital opened as St. Clare’s in 1934 to serve the notoriously rowdy neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. The Catholic hospital housed nurses in a slender building that still stands near the corner of Ninth Avenue, and former employees say the nuns would use a tunnel to go from their quarters to the hospital.
In the 1990s, the hospital gained recognition as a leading AIDS treatment center. But the creation of new AIDS drugs reduced patient visits, and soon the hospital began losing millions of dollars a year.
St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center took over the hospital in 2003, renaming it St. Vincent’s Midtown. But despite impressive service scores and new facilities, a state commission decided the hospital should be shut down and on August 31, 2007, the hospital closed.
Seeking to address the deterioration of the old building, Senator Duane met with Chetrit Group representatives in August to jump-start the stalled project. The senator’s office said the original funding for the project came from Lehman Brothers before that firm folded in 2008. A source in the finance section of Tessler Development, a project partner with Chetrit, said the developers got “stuck in the quagmire of financial distress and union restrictions.”
While the Chetrit Group pledged to begin work this month, it has not given a timeline for construction and declined to comment for this story.
Neighbors are happy to see the rats go, but some still wish a new hospital would go up instead of apartments.
“There are so few hospitals on the west side,” said Kobrosky, a former St. Vincent’s Midtown nurse. “The east side is just packed with hospitals.” If you needed a hospital and had to cross town at rush hour, you could be in trouble, she said. If you couldn’t go to Roosevelt Hospital on West 59th Street, “you’d have to get schlepped to the lower east side.”
The street below the old hospital is relatively quiet. Five or six black cars idle at the curb on weekdays—police rarely bother them there. “I used to work here. I worked here for 13 years,” Manuel Sanchez said, looking up through the limousine’s windshield at the stone engraved with “St. Clare’s Hospital.” Mr. Sanchez worked in purchasing for the hospital and started driving limos a year ago. “Since I know this place and was here for so long, I usually come here and wait for my call.”
While many remain nostalgic about St. Vincent’s Midtown, others are looking forward to the new development.
Ignazio Leone, a real estate broker for an apartment building next to the old structure, thinks it’s a good thing. “The owner is happy,” Mr. Leone said, explaining that his boss expects the property value to go up. He adds that two new tenants were excited about it, too. “Seeing an empty building leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth,” he said.
Victor Urrea at the paint shop is also hopeful. “This business is gonna be good,” he said smiling slightly. He’s already thinking about the repair and paint supplies future tenants will be buying.