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Greenwich Village’s Italian Benevolent Hospital Cared For Thousands, Was Cared For By Operatic Superstar

The closure of St. Vincent’s Hospital in 2010, Greenwich Village’s one full-service hospital, was and remains the subject of considerable grief and dismay. But St. Vincent’s wasn’t the first Greenwich Village Hospital to close its doors. One particular one was set up to serve a growing immigrant community, and got some particularly high-profile help in that regard. But a trace or memory of it in the neighborhood is hard to come by today, in spite of its profound benevolent impact and it’s truly compelling story.

Although Italian immigrants had been coming to New York City as early as the 18th century, it wasn’t until the post-Civil War period and into the early 20th century that Italian immigrants came to the city in great number, eventually becoming the city’s largest ethnic group. Many of those immigrants made their way through Greenwich Village’s South Village neighborhood. As described in our report, The Italians of the South Village by historian Mary Elizabeth Brown, Ph.D, many societies developed to aid new Italian immigrants, some at the initiation of local religious institutions such as St. Anthony of Padua Church and Our Lady of Pompeii. Other such societies were developed by Italian immigrants who made their fortunes here. One such particularly impactful but almost entirely forgotten organization, initially located in the South Village, was the Italian Benevolent Institute.

The Italian Benevolent Institute at 165-169 West Houston Street

The Italian Benevolent Institute (Societa di benficenza) was the successor to the Italian Benevolent Society, founded in 1882. Celestino Piva, a wealthy and successful businessman who owned several silk factories in Pennsylvania, along with a few other Italian philanthropists, founded the institute in that same year. They raised $8,000 and rented 27 Hancock Street, a building demolished on a street which was erased for the extension of Sixth Avenue in the 1920s. Here there was a dormitory where people could stay for 25 cents a day, and the poorest were sheltered without charge. The institute also provided food, medicine, etc. to the poor and helped them find employment.

1903 Sanborn map of the Italian Benevolent Institute at 165-169 West Houston Street. Note the Dispensary at No. 169 West Houston Street.

In 1902 the institute moved into 165-167 West Houston Street, with its dispensary next door at No. 169, in several buildings that appeared to have originally been built as houses in the early to mid-19th century (these buildings too would later be razed in the 1920s for to the extension of Sixth Avenue and the widening of Houston Street). Its healthcare facility was fully staffed by doctors and nurses including Dr. M. Caturani, who received his medical degree in Naples in 1899. The Daily Eagle Almanac of 1906 shows that the infirmary of the institute assisted 5,500 persons and that there were 14,000 dispensary visits. It described the institute’s mission as “relief of needy Italians, assist immigrants.”

The institute was not only founded but sustained largely by the generosity of Italian immigrants and their fellow countrymen and women. One particularly notable supporter was Enrico Caruso, the international superstar Italian operatic tenor, who was in his day the most widely recorded and arguably the most popular musical performer on the globe. He performed frequently throughout Europe and the Americas. And when he came to New York, he was sure to support the work of the Italian Benevolent Institute.

On multiple occasions in the early 20th century, Caruso was involved with or helped organize fundraisers for the hospital via performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, both raising funds and personally making contributions. One involved a performance of La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910. Caruso sang the part of Rodolpho, and for his charitable support was presented with a gold medal with the inscription “To Enrico Caruso — in arts and charity unequaled — the Italian Hospital.”

The occasion was described by The New York Times as follows:
The house as is usual on occasions of this sort was filled with enthusiasts of the Italian opera and benevolently inclined persons. The auditorium had been decorated with Italian flags, and between the acts the audience was regaled with the Italian national anthem and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Enrico Caruso c. 1910

By 1916, what came to be referred to as the Italian Hospital had moved to East 83rd Street at the East River, as seen on the map of that year. By the 1920s, the buildings which once housed the hospital has been demolished as well as part of the extension and expansion of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street to allow the construction of the IND (A, C, E, F) subway line underneath.

Playground of the Americas, south side of West Houston Street between Sixth Avenue and MacDougal Steeet.

Today, what is known as the Playground of the Americas stands where the hospital used to. But the roots of this venerable institution that helped so many Italian immigrants will always be in the Italian South Village.

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