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The (Potential) Familiar Future of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary

On the corner of Second Avenue and 13th Street, the New York Eye & Ear Infirmary (NYEEI) has stood for 165 years. One of the oldest specialized hospitals in the Western Hemisphere, NYEEI has provided significant research, care, and medical support for generations of New Yorkers, regardless of their income.

NYEEI on Second Avenue

Nine years after merging with Mount Sinai, there are plans to dismantle the Eye & Ear Infirmary, distributing their services throughout Manhattan. Disbanding the hospital and redistributing locations for care poses significant challenges, particularly to visually impaired individuals, in commuting to the many points and the lack of on-site synergy of resources and services. This plan also means an empty, unprotected historic building likely being placed on the market, and unlikely surviving.

Village Preservation has led efforts alongside the staff, doctors, and patients of NYEEI to fight for landmark protections of the building. In doing so, the structure would not only maintain the historic character of our neighborhood, but help prevent the loss of critical health care services.

Photo By Larry Gertner

We had seen what can happen just a few short yards away at the Stuyvesant Polyclinic that once operated on Second Avenue just south of 9th Street. The Stuyvesant Clinic, or “German Dispensary,” was established in May 1884 by Oswald and Anna Ottendorfer as a “gift to the city,” particularly to the large German immigrant population in the East Village during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over time, the clinic evolved to use various names, most notably changing from the German Polyklinik to the German Polyclinic and eventually the Stuyvesant Polyclinic.

In 1954, the clinic was still functioning as an affordable, accessible resource and recorded the entrance of its six millionth patient. That patient, Mrs. Mary Ciofala, was a restaurant cashier who lived nearby at 317 East Thirteenth Street and was only charged fifty cents for her visit that day. By 1978, the Cabrini Health Foundation acquired the well-known clinic. That change resulted in a larger total staff, expanded services, and increased prices.

Photo by Gary He

By 2006, however, the Cabrini Health Foundation was in talks to sell the structure after serving the community for over three decades. The impending sale of the clinic was alarming to many of the staff members and patients that frequented the location. At the time, a report from The Villager revealed overarching sentiment regarding the transaction of such a beloved space:

“Olivia Fitzsimmons, a longtime patient and East Villager, said that she and the former staff are having a hard time with all the changes and dispersal of services. “We are grieving the loss of our family,” she said. “It was a home away from home. The marble staircase, the tiles, crown molding. It was so old, so solid, like a security blanket, and everything was in the same place. Now all the services are in different locations, everyone’s disconnected.

It was after the sale of the building by the Cabrini Health Foundation that the actual impacts of the deal were seen. The historic, protected building was passed around by various owners, none of which sought to establish a clinic or location that served the community. Multiple violations of landmarks law ensued, and transactions continued until it was finally leased in 2019 by the women’s co-working group, The Wing.

By then, the plans for the building were clear. The Wing had occupied a space that once served the community, with an environment that was reserved, quite literally, for a select few. Since the closing of The Wing, the future of this location remains unknown. The possible dismantling and sale of the Second Avenue NYEEI suggest a similar path to that of the German Polyclinic in the eyes of preservationists and neighbors alike.

New York Eye and Ear Infirmary at 2nd Avenue and 13th Street, 1904. Photo by Irving Underhill. Courtesy MCNY.

To help save the NYEEI building and keep its services intact, send the letter at this link. If you’ve already sent it, ask friends, family, and neighbors to do the same.

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