By Arthur Z. Schwartz
It wasn’t but five years ago that Mt. Sinai Hospital announced plans to shut down its 600-bed Beth Israel Hospital subsidiary and build a new 70-bed hospital next to another one of its subsidiaries, the Manhattan Eye and Ear Infirmary. Community protests, a lawsuit, and eventually COVID stopped that plan, although Beth Israel was stripped of some important components, like its birthing unit, its pediatric surgery unit, and its heart surgery unit. But 600 beds remain, all too many of which have been used to treat hospitalized COVID patients.
Plans to build the new hospital were shelved—hopefully never to come back. But in this world where medical care is being shifted out of hospitals and into clinics and urgent care centers one never knows.
And now it looks like Manhattan Eye and Ear, at 14th Street and Second Avenue, is on the chopping block. According to medical staff, Mount Sinai, the owner of Eye and Ear Infirmary, had been planting the seeds of the institution’s closure prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the deadly virus delayed the rumored plans, the doctors say that time is now running out for the 200-year-old institution.
Doctors who provide medical treatment at the facility say that Mount Sinai is rapidly moving forward on a plan to sell the building due to what they cite as a high cost to manage patients who are primarily underinsured. As reported by the staff, who say they have had “behind closed door meetings” with Mount Sinai officials, services at the facility are set to be disbanded and spread out across the city.
“If we lose the building, you lose the program. The teaching will suffer in the end. Put yourself in a position of the patients now. When a patient calls on the phone and says I can’t see, you can’t ask the patient well what part of your eyes is not working? Is it neurologic? Is it diabetes? Is it glaucoma? Is it a cataract? All the patient knows is that they can’t see,” Dr. Doug Buxton said. “We’re the 10th ranked program in the country and it’s because of that service that we give. So, I want to emphasize that loss to the patient.” “We are a world class training institution, top surgeons in New York City have spent time there, either they did their residency there, fellowship there, or shadowed a doctor there,” Dr. Paul Lee said. “If we move and are split up, the program will suffer. We will not be able to train world-class ophthalmologists as well as we have. I have written emails, I’ve had face-to-face meetings and the training at New York Eye and Ear is so vital to its mission.”
“NYEE is not closing. Due to longstanding trends in the movement of ophthalmology and ENT from inpatient to ambulatory care, Mount Sinai Health System has embarked on a multimillion dollar plan to strengthen and modernize all NYEE programs and services by moving them into new and newly renovated ambulatory settings. And not a single current NYEE service—clinical, educational, and research—will be closing as a result of this transformation,” Mount Sinai said in a statement.
“This process will take months to initiate and years to complete, and through it all NYEE will remain open and available to all its patients. We look forward to working with our staff, our patients, and our community to make this transformation a success and preserve the innovative legacy of NYEE into the 21st century,” a spokesperson for Mount Sinai Health System said.
Preservation-minded groups have been lobbying the city to save the building from possible destruction. Led by Village Preservation, a coalition of organizations sent a Request for Evaluation letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on April 28, detailing the historical significance of 216-222 Second Avenue and why it merits protection.
In response to this grassroots campaign, the Landmarks Preservation Commission stated in its June response letter that the building “may merit consideration as an individual landmark,” but has not yet taken any action. Apparently, the lack of decision is due to “agency priorities.”
Village Preservation held a press conference in early August to decry the possible closure. State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein both support the preservation effort of the hospital and its home; City Councilmember Carlina Rivera has not supported the landmarking effort, perhaps reflecting her new-found cozy relationship with real-estate developers who funded her failed Congressional campaign.
The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary was founded in 1820 by Dr. Edward Delafield and Dr. John Kearny Rodgers. History paints it as the earliest specialized hospital in the Western Hemisphere. Within seven months of opening—situated near the Five Points slum of yore—the physicians performed some of the first cataract needling procedures in the Americas, and became known in the medical profession as the “Fathers of American Ophthalmology.”
The Infirmary spent the next three decades at various locations, and finally settled in the four-story Italianate brownstone at Second Avenue and East 13th Street in 1856, which was designed by Mettam and Burke. The building as we now see it was constructed in multiple stages.
The hospital expanded in 1893 with a three-story addition, paving the way for three pavillions all designed in a Richardsonian Romanesque style by architect Robert Williams Gibson. (Gibson’s other landmarked credits include the New York Botanical Garden Museum Building in the Bronx; St. Michael’s Episcopal Church at Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street; and the Morton Plant House, later remodeled into the Cartier store, at 651 Fifth Avenue.)
Other alterations to the structure followed in the early 1900s.
The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary merged with the Mount Sinai network in 2013.
Arthur Schwartz is the District Leader for the 66th Assembly District Part A, which includes Manhattan Eye and Ear. He led a litigation team that helped keep Beth Israel Hospital open.