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The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary’s Rich History

Robert Williams Gibson Building, 1893-1903 in April 2022.
New York Eye and Ear Infirmary at 2nd Avenue and 13th Street, 1904. Photo by Irving Underhill. Courtesy MCNY.

The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary at 218 Second Avenue/216-222 Second Avenue/301-309 East 13th Street is one of the most consequential sites in medical history in New York City. Established in 1820, it is the oldest specialized hospital in the Western Hemisphere and one of the oldest hospitals in New York. Significant advances in ophthalmology and otolaryngology were made in this hospital. Helen Keller gave a rousing speech here in 1903. Recently, the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai (NYEE) began emptying the historic building in preparation for their upcoming move, leaving this historic building at risk of insensitive development or even demolition. Village Preservation, along with a number NYEE alumni, physicians, the Historic Districts Council, the East Village Community Coalition, and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative are calling on the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the historic New York Eye and Ear Infirmary as an individual landmark

A Scene in the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, 1875.
Dispensary Waiting Hall, Christmas Eve 1917.

The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary is a rare site that is equal parts architecturally and culturally significant. The hospital first moved its East Thirteenth Street and Second Avenue location in 1856, and was expanded to its current Richardsonian Romanesque appearance by Robert Williams Gibson. Gibson’s other projects include the New York Botanical Garden Museum Building (1898- 1901) in the Bronx, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (1890-91) at Amsterdam Avenue and Ninety-Ninth Street, the West End Collegiate Church and School (1892- 93) at West End Avenue and Seventy-seventh Street, the Morton Plant House (1903-05), later remodeled into the Cartier store, at 651 Fifth Avenue, and the Church Missions House (1892-94) at 281 Park Avenue South. All are designated New York City Landmarks.

1893 Plans for 13th Street Elevation with the Schermerhorn Pavilion at the far left.
Schermerhorn Building facade, 2022.

The Second Avenue facade features the Schermerhorn Pavilion, which was completed in 1903 and made possible thanks to a large gift from William C. Schermerhorn, a lawyer and philanthropist from one of New York’s oldest families. In addition to the significance of the building’s benefactor and its superb architectural integrity, the William C. Schermerhorn Pavilion’s opening was inaugurated by Helen Keller, the foremost disability rights advocate of the early 20th century, at the dedication ceremony on May 11, 1903. She told the crowd: 

“In spite of the hard words that are spoken against this great city, I find here a wide human sympathy. Everyone is imbued with it; we feel it everywhere. Surely there would be no need for eloquent appeals in behalf of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary if you could look into the darkness which the blind see and listen to the stillness which the deaf hear. There is no greater deprivation than blindness; no sharper anguish than deafness. I know these limitations as you cannot know them, yet I have not known the suffering which this institution is meant to alleviate. My own difficulties are vastly increased because I cannot see or hear. How must they be redoubled when one has seen and heard for many years, and has been engaged in pursuits that require all the faculties, and then suffers this unutterable loss!…In order to be happy, we must each live in the common life of all. We must enjoy with the joy of others. We must feel their sorrows. All that we have, all that we know, all that we have discovered, we must bestow, at least in part, for the universal good. This institution has become your sacred burden. Look on it, lift it, bear it proudly. It is your part and privilege to hold up the hands of the physicians here who are fellow workment together with god.”

Helen Keller - Perkins School for the Blind
Helen Keller and her lifelong companion and teacher, Ann Sullivan.

Keller’s speech is just one of many historically significant events that occurred at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. To learn more about the history of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, click here to view our formal Request for Evaluation submitted to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The campaign to landmark the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary has also received support from State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein. To view their letter, click here. To send a letter to New York City officials in support of landmarking the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, click here

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