Hats Off To Stetson’s Union Mission Hospital

 

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John B. Stetson’s Union Mission Hospital in South Kensington | Photo: Michael Bixler

There’s no doubt that the John B. Stetson Company was one of Philadelphia’s greatest industrial success stories. The world-renowned hat manufacturing company began in a single-room workshop in 1865, and over five decades it grew into a nine acre, 25-building complex, creating its own town-within-a-town. Stetson employed 5,000 workers and provided them with their own private services, including education, training, sports, and entertainment. Chief among all benefits was health care administered at the company-owned hospital, housed in the last standing Stetson building in South Kensington on the 1700 block of North 4th Street.

The drive to establish company-provided health care began in the mid 1880s when John B. Stetson was diagnosed with catarrh, a chronic condition associated with the mucous membranes. Being the busy, hat-making Czar that he was, Stetson did not have time to go to his specialist for regular treatment, so the specialist came to his office twice a week. Upon discovering that some of his factory employees suffered from the same condition, Stetson paid for this physician to treat them as well. Thus began the Stetson Company’s entrance into the hospital business.

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JEVS ACT II has served the surrounding community through healthcare and drug rehabilitation for the last three decades | Photo: Michael Bixler

Realizing that the workers getting medical treatment on site missed less work, Stetson arranged for a small dispensary to serve his employees in the library of the North Fourth Street Union Mission. Shortly after opening on February 5th, 1887, the dispensary began to extend care to the families of employees as well. In its first year, this yet-to-be-named medical facility, running out of a library in a row house, served 3,745 patients. The company established a medical benefits plan called the Stetson Beneficial Association–employees were required to join and pay 25 cents in dues per month.

Four years after opening, the annual number of visits grew to 8,400 and the North Fourth Street Union Mission was no longer big enough. The dispensary was moved to the main Stetson factory building where services we open to the general public as well. After the move, the dispensary was finally given an official name: the Union Mission Hospital.

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Due to rechartering, Union Mission Hospital’s name changed to Stetson Hospital of Philadelphia immediately after construction was complete | Photo: Michael Bixler

By 1898, the number of patients had surged to 27,000 per year. As the hospital began to outgrow itself again–and the need for additional hat production space became pressing–plans began to manifest for the construction of a large-scale facility. Preparation took five years to complete, stalled by a series of blueprint changes and false starts. Indecision over the design, the height of the building– oscillating between three and seven stories–and whether it should be constructed of re-enforced concrete, steel, or brick slowed the process down tremendously.

Stetson Hospital with long-lost Nurses Home still attached | Source: Ballinger Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Stetson Hospital with long-lost Nurses Home still attached | Source: Ballinger Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia

It wasn’t until the Autumn of 1903 that ground was finally broken with a design from Ballinger and Perrot in hand. Construction lumbered on for over a year until the new hospital opened on February 22, 1905. Despite the building being emblazoned at the top with the Union Mission name, the hospital had been re-chartered as the Stetson Hospital of Philadelphia by the time it opened. Although shorter than nearly every other building on the Stetson campus, the hospital still commanded a large presence–the outstanding brick and stone facade is asymmetrically balanced and features a massive arched doorway that serves as its focal point.

The sizable new facility was far superior to its previous, modest incarnations. It had an x-ray room, laundry facility, pharmacy, offices for the resident doctor and head nurse, operating room, “etherizing” room, kitchen, and dining room. Wards for the hospital’s many departments were separated by gender on the second and third floors. A roof garden topped the building off, while on the southern side a matching, separate building was constructed that housed the Nurses’ Home and later the Nurses’ Training School (now demolished). Over the next decade, the hospital was so successful that an additional southern wing was built along North Orianna Street.

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The abandoned southern wing of the hospital on N. Orianna Street | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Stetson Hospital of Philadelphia underwent a massive renovation and modernization project in 1936 under the designs of Earle W. Bolton and would continue until 1970, shortly before the entire Stetson super-complex shut down for good. In 1974, St. Luke’s Hospital–working through the city’s Coordinating Office for Drug and Alcohol Abuse Programs–received a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustments for the conversion of the old Stetson hospital into a drug treatment center. St Luke’s never followed through with the work, but the variance stayed active for the next five years.

In 1977, the vacant hospital, along with the rest of the Stetson buildings, were granted to the City of Philadelphia. All but three of the buildings were later demolished. Shortly after coming under the City’s ownership, St. Luke’s variance was used by Philadelphia Alternatives for Rehab to go ahead with a conversion into a drug treatment and methadone maintenance center under the designs of architects Mukherjee-Traub.

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A token of gratitude made out of string hangs on the parking lot fence of JEVS ACT II | Photo: Michael Bixler

In 1980, the remaining Stetson factory buildings were destroyed by arson, leaving the old hospital the last of the original 25 company properties still standing. After another short period of vacancy, the building’s current occupant, the second location of Jewish Employment and Vocational Service Human Services Achievement Through Counseling and Treatment (or JEVS ACT II for short), made their way into the old Stetson Hospital in 1983.

For the last three decades, JEVS ACT II has offered methadone maintenance, medical and psychiatric treatment, HIV and hepatitis testing, and a host of other services for the local community. In 2009 and 2010, a large mural called Personal Renaissance was installed on the north party wall, part of the southern party wall, and a section of the vacant southern wing.

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The size and breadth of the Personal Renaissance mural can be seen best from N. Orianna Street | Photo: Michael Bixler

Today, the revival of South Kensington is well underway–especially to the south of the former hospital. With large segments of empty or underutilized land surrounding it, the site of the old Stetson Campus may one day be totally unrecognizable, save for this great old building. One other relic of Stetson’s Philadelphia empire still survives at 1225 Chestnut Street. Evidence of the company’s former Center City office and retail store can be seen on Sansom Street where the old façade is still intact.

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.

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13 Comments


  1. Thank you for this article. My shop is a 2 blocks from this building and I drive by it everyday. I knew the vacant land nearby had once belonged to Stetson, but did not know the history of this building.

  2. Wonderful article. My mother worked at Stetson’s. I can only guess the time period, it must have been around and between 1930 to 1937. After she was married she did not work any more. As was the case for most women back then, the husband was the “bread winner” and most of them did not want their wives working! Thank you for all the great info about Stetson’s.

  3. Just to be clear — the title of this story “Hats Off To The Last Stetson Building Standing” is slightly misleading. It’s the last building from the big campus. Perhaps the most accessible Stetson building remaining is 1224 Sansom street which still carries the Stetson name over it’s entrance. This building was actually the rear exit for the (demolish) large Stetson store at 1225 Chestnut.

    • Yes, that building is mentioned in the final paragraph of the story. The 1225 Chestnut store/office is still the original building from 1913, but had its Chestnut Street-facing facade chopped off due to street widening a few decades later. The facade was again replaced in 2003.

      Stetson had a Center City office/store at 1108 Chestnut before 1913 and that building still stands (with a 1946 facade), but they were not the original users of it.

  4. There’s actually one building from the Stetson factory complex that’s still standing on the northwest corner of 4th and Cecil B. Moore. Not sure what it’s used for now…

  5. Everyone is forgetting the Stetson Mansion on Spring Garden Street. The headline should be changed to Hats Off To One Of the Last 3 or 4 Stetson Buildings Sill Standing.

  6. Great Article! My Grandfather, Fred Rapp, worked all of his life at Stetsons. Wish I had his original work contract that he signed when he became an apprentice there in the early 1900’s. I was very young when he took me there. Only remember the crossed rife emblems that he put onto hats he made. Stetson at the time that he was hired had some pretty stringent rules for their employees. Again this was a great Article.
    Thank You!

  7. I work in this building, the 3rd floor is mostly storage and still has some of the original hospital rooms somewhat in tact. Ive been able to get onto the roof&have taken some really great skyline photos. Its a really interesting old building

  8. My father was a doctor in that hospital from 1945 till it closed. We played in the lab on Saturdays with our own racks of pipettes and testubes and microscopes. When I was 5 or 6 I used to sit on the switchboard operator’s lap and answer the calls,”Stetson Hospital, may I help you?” on the old-fashioned plug in switchboard.
    I used to think the old elevator with the gate and operator rolling the wheel took you to heaven when you died!
    The people who worked at the hospital were like family and always welcomed us. They often gathered for parties in our home.
    I still have many items from my dad’s office there including the green privacy screen, his scale and the stainless steel bedpan and urinal!
    Of course we still have his hats!

  9. I grew up on the 1700 block of N 3rd St in early 50’s. Our house backed up to Stetson Hosp and the Stetson Hat Co.

  10. I was born in Stetson Hospital in 1952. Thank you for the great article.

  11. I also was born in Stetson Hospital, premature on 12/12/1952. I still have the original birth certificate. I was baptized a week later in my family’s living room. I assume they thought I would not make it.

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