Known to most people as “That Big Abandoned Hospital,” Mt. Sinai is the Divine Lorraine of South Philadelphia. This massive medical fortress was and still is the biggest and baddest building in Pennsport. Surrounded by and connected to a complex of smaller buildings old and new, the Mount Sinai Hospital, though stifled, manages to get its Art Deco amazingness to show through. Looming over its neighborhood for almost a century, Mt. Sinai Hospital isn’t part of the South Philadelphia Skyline, it IS the South Philadelphia Skyline.
In the final couple of decades of the 19th Century, the area we now call Pennsport was getting extremely crowded. The dense population of destitute immigrants, primarily Jews, suffered from a severe lack of medical services. Numerous organizations tried to establish a hospital to serve the multitudes that were stuffed into the enclave, but failed. Finally, in August of 1899, the Beth Israel Hospital Association formed in order to solve the problem.
They successfully treated the area’s poor Jewish population and also accepted patients from other faiths. Beth Israel was absorbed by the Franklin Free Dispensary only a few months after beginning their operation. At around the same time, in March of 1900, the Mount Sinai Hospital Association had also formed. The two organizations were working toward the same goal, so after a bit of negotiation, the Franklin Free Dispensary and the Mount Sinai Hospital Association combined, keeping the name of the latter group. Jacob D. Lit of Lit Brothers fame would be their president.
The first major hurdle the hospital encountered was where to locate themselves. At the time, a city law was on the books stating that a hospital, especially one treating consumptives or immigrants (Mt. Sinai would do both), could not be built near homes and churches. The Association considered placing it outside of town, but realized that the hospital would need to be where the patients lived.
After pushing the city government, the law was amended by the end of 1903. The Association was able to buy an old lumber yard at the 1400 block of South 5th Street, right smack in the middle of the neighborhood that was the most in need. The $25,000 purchase included the yard’s four-story building, which would become the first Mount Sinai Hospital. The hospital opened to the public in March of 1905.
Though created to serve the immediate neighborhood, Mount Sinai Hospital was the only hospital south of Pine Street and east of Broad! One Hundred Thousand potential patients. A frenzy of sick and injured descended upon the 33-bed hospital from the entire southeastern portion of the city, all eligible for free treatment. That’s right.. treatment at Mount Sinai was free. Jacob D. Lits paid for the vast majority of the hospital’s expenses out of his own pocket.
Only five years later, Mount Sinai was taking in 500 emergency cases a month (mostly injured waterfront workers) and 50,000 patients a year. They already had an ambulance service, pharmacy, and their own Nursing School. Expansion became a dire need. The hospital procured some state money to build some ramshackle additions to their building, but it wasn’t enough. The Board of Directors of the Mount Sinai Medical Association decided that a complex of two buildings would be required. They commissioned the best Jewish architect they could find, Louis Magaziner, to design a $75,000-$85,000 project, about $1.5 million today.
The new Magaziner-designed main hospital building would not be completed until June 1922. The Nurses’ Home would be finished in 1924. The hospital had become so overcrowded at this point that a temporary addition was placed on the main building right away. The Board then went back to Magaziner and asked for a gigantic permanent addition to the main building, one that would allow them to stop worrying about new construction forever. This, then, was the impetus for the creation of the impenetrable super-castle all South Philadelphians know and love today.
Over the course of three years, 1927-1930, the 10 story, 146 foot tall addition, along with a smaller outpatient building and an addition to the Nurse’s Home, were completed. Mount Sinai became a successful and highly-regarded hospital. Its outpatient care center became famous, and was among the first places in America that focused on infant wellness.
In 1951, the three major Jewish hospitals in Philadelphia: Mount Sinai, Northern Liberties, and the appropriately-named Jewish Hospital, combined into one mega-huge hospital organization. The Board from Mount Sinai wrote Albert Einstein, asking to use his name for the new group and he accepted. In 1952, Mount Sinai Hospital became known as Albert Einstein Medical Center Southern Division.
The hospital campus would grow and thrive over the next 30 years, though that success would be short-lived. By the end of the 1980s, it extended nearly all the way across the square block, having eliminated a Catholic Church and two small residential streets. In 1987, a large, boring-looking addition was constructed to the back. It did nothing to help the hospital’s financial situation, which had turned sour by that point. In 1988, Graduate Health System purchased the Southern Division for $10.5 Million. They gave back the hospital’s original name.
Despite Graduate’s control, Mount Sinai lost even more money than before. In the early 1990s, Graduate shut down the hospital’s emergency room and stopped practicing in conventional services. The once-great hospital was now only doing plastic surgery and rehab. Allegheny Health System took over Graduate in 1996, and didn’t even stay long enough to change the sign on the door. On August 20th, 1997, Allegheny announced that they would be closing the old Mount Sinai for good. Mount Sinai shut down for the opposite reason it opened…now there was too much hospital space available in the area. The doors closed in October 1997.
Ever since, Mount Sinai has actually BECOME a mountain of sorts…a big, useless mountain of bricks collecting dirt, graffiti, weather, and squatters. In 2006, Polygon Partners, an NYC-based development firm, proposed a residential conversion that would have been called The Sophia and would have consisted of 201 condominiums with an additional 27 townhouses built on the grounds. The development never happened, but the old Nurse’s Home has become an apartment building called Mount Sinai Apartments. The hospital is currently listed for sale for $8 million.
In the years since Mount Sinai closed, Pennsport has seen a significant increase in home values and in quality of life despite the hulking mass of a once-great hospital in constant view. It’s about time that Magaziner’s great hospital building should be rehabbed and reused to complete the area’s renaissance. What are you waiting for? Get developin’!!!
About the author
GroJLart is the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. GroJLart has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog.