Places that Matter

Eastern District/Good Samaritan Dispensary

photo courtesy Friends of the Lower East Side
photo courtesy Friends of the Lower East Side
One of the city's oldest municipal health care centers for the poor
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Joyce Mendelsohn

Eastern District Dispensary was established on Grand Street in 1832, during a major cholera epidemic that claimed the lives of more than 3500 people, mainly destitute Irish immigrants crammed into filthy hovels in the fourth and sixth slum wards of downtown Manhattan. It was the third dispensary in the city; New York Dispensary, White & Centre Streets, founded in 1791 was the first. Dispensaries were municipally funded, medical walk-in facilities, offering free or low-cost care to the poor, and post-graduate training for young doctors. Dispensaries, such as Northern Dispensary (165 Waverly Place, established in 1824, building erected in 1831) and Elizabeth Blackwell’s NY Dispensary for Poor Women and Children (207 East 7th Street, established in 1853) were located in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods to serve people living and working in crowded quarters who were particularly vulnerable to life threatening contagious diseases like cholera, diphtheria, yellow fever, typhoid, smallpox, tuberculosis.

In 1884, at a previous location in rent-free space in the old Essex Market, Eastern Dispensary treated close to 23,000 patients and operated with 16 physicians, a dentist, several nurses and a janitor with a total annual operating cost of just over $5,000, which was provided by the city—an average of 23 cents for each person treated. When Eastern District and Good Samaritan Dispensaries consolidated and erected the building at 75 Essex Street in 1890, there were close to a dozen of these publicly financed neighborhood dispensaries operating in Manhattan. Funding for the land and building—total of $112,000—was raised through contributions; annual operating expenses were funded by the city. The ground level and first floor held physicians’ offices, quarantine rooms and an apothecary dispensing medicine for a cost of ten cents. Upper floors were used for waiting areas and examination rooms.
 
After a law was passed in 1899 that only the indigent could be treated at city-operated dispensaries, visits became a source of shame and the number of patients declined. Dispensaries were gradually phased out as hospitals opened outpatient clinics. After Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary closed in the 1950s, the building was converted to store, office and storage space. It is currently occupied by Eisner Brothers, a sportswear retailer.
 
The building is a physical reminder of the responsibility of government to provide health care for people of all ages, and of private charities to contribute to the well being of the poor.
 
The dispensary was designed by architects Rose & Stone in the style of a freestanding Italianate palazzo with a symmetrical façade organized in a tripartite division. When erected on the northwest corner of Essex and Broome Streets, in a neighborhood composed mainly of rows of tenements, it stood as an example of municipal responsibility and philanthropic concern. The four-story building is clad in orange brick on the first story and tan brick above, laid in Flemish bond. On the first story of the façade facing Essex Street, a rhythmic series of five arches pierces the center section with projecting belt courses radiating from the central arched voussoir entrance, and four arched voussoir windows flanking the entrance. Under the bell courses, now coated with cementitious parging, painted reddish brown, is brownstone of a similar color. Above the arches is a row of nine vertical sash windows, surrounded by moulded brick, repeated at the third story, and nine arched windows at the fourth story. The southern elevation echoes the central-section design elements with a pattern of three arched voussoir windows on the first story and four rectangular windows on each of the upper storeys. Crowning the building’s eastern and southern elevations is a row of dentils and a large roof cornice with console brackets. The northern and western facades are of unadorned red brick punctuated by an assortment of rectangular windows.
 
The building is surrounded by Site 1 of Essex Crossing (formerly Seward Park Mixed-Use Development) on the Lower East Side. While the building is not on the site, it could be damaged by work conducted around it. The dispensary is listed as part of the Lower East Side Historic District on the National Register, and it is mentioned in the Environmental Impact Statement for the Development. A request for evaluation was submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in January 2013. Initially opposed to landmarking, as of March 2014, building owner and longtime Lower East Side business man Shalom Eisner is negotiating 75 Essex street's future with developers and preservationists. If the building is landmarked, it may be possible to transfer the associated 17,000 feet of air rights to another property, which would enable Eisner to build on top of the historic structure. However, even if the Landmarks Preservation Commission would allow new construction over a designated building, Essex Crossing is subject to strict heigh restrictions, and a satisfactory air rights transfer may not actually be possible.