By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

The Northern Dispensary, ca. 1831, above foreground at Grove Street and Waverly Place, provided inpatient services to the city’s poor and sick until May, 1989. It has sat vacant ever since, but now William Gottlieb Real Estate has offered the building to God’s Love We Deliver to expand its charitable services. Credit: Brian J. Pape.

In 1831, carpenter Henry Bayard and mason John Tucker built a two-story brick building on a triangular plot of land at Grove Street and Waverly Place to house Greenwich Village’s free medical clinic, the Northern Dispensary. The clinic’s purpose, “To furnish medicine and medical attendance gratuitously, to such of the inhabitants as may be proper objects of this charity…,” is memorialized by a small limestone plaque over the main entry door of the building, inscribed “Heal the Sick.”

The clinic served thousands of patients annually. When the number of patients continued to grow, the trustees added a third story to the building. The clinic served ten to twenty thousand patients a year in the second half of the 19th century, reportedly including Edgar Allan Poe who was treated for a head cold.

The Dispensary provided inpatient services until 1920; from 1920 to 1940 it provided mostly outpatient services. In the early 1940s, the clinic’s services included medical and dental care, and then transitioned to outpatient dental care only. In 1986, playwright, novelist, and poet George Whitmore was refused treatment at the Dispensary because of his HIV+ status. The city’s Human Rights Commission awarded him $47,000 in 1988, but instead of treating patients with HIV, the clinic announced it would close its doors in May, 1989. 

The Roman Catholic Diocese of New York bought the building in 1990 and planned to turn it over to BRC Human Services for conversion into a 15-room single-room-occupancy space for homeless people with AIDS, but that effort was eventually abandoned.

An original deed restriction requires that the building serve the poor and infirm, limiting other possible uses and occupants.

In 1998 the building was sold to William Gottlieb Real Estate, a well-known real estate investment firm that would end up owning about 100 properties in the West Village, the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, and the Lower East Side. Mr. William Gottlieb usually drove a beat-up station wagon and carried documents around in a shopping bag, but regardless of his eccentricities, he was sort of an accidental preservationist. He generally provided minimum maintenance, and kept the buildings’ appearances the way he found them, including old signage advertising long-gone users and businesses, such as the Keller Hotel sign and the Meier & Oelhaf Co. Marine Repair sign on Christopher Street. After his death in 1999, Mr. Gottlieb’s estate was controlled by his nephew Neil Bender and his wife Marika.

The Bender family started supporting the charity God’s Love We Deliver, founded in 1986 to serve homebound AIDS patients, but has broadened its mission, and has brought on additional caseworkers and nutritionists. This has squeezed the nonprofit’s Sixth Avenue and Spring Street headquarters for space; when the pandemic hit, the number of daily meals it was producing had increased by 2,500.

At that point the Benders offered the Northern Dispensary for God’s Love We Deliver expansion goals. The monthly rent of $5,800, a fraction of what this much space would draw on the open market, has allowed the charity to upgrade the space and serve more people. Meals will continue to be prepared and distributed from the SoHo location, not the Dispensary. Despite its name, there is no religious affiliation for God’s Love We Deliver.

According to an in-depth New York Times article by Jane Margolies, Ms. Pearl of God’s Love We Deliver said, “It just feels right to be in a place whose history was a place to heal the sick.”

Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice. He serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee, and is also co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, a member of AIANY Historic Buildings Committee, and a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.

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