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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I just found out today ha my great Aunt Clara Koch was one of the cirst nurses to work at this hospital of Stetsons. So r citing to lrarn of this family and my connections to it.
I was born in stetson hospital in 1944 and my brother in 1946.
I was born here in 1953. My mother chose it because she felt it was the best available hospital near home, and she could walk there when her labor began. My dad told me the nurses made him choose whose life to save if something went wrong during delivery. Amazing to consider this today!
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.
I will say this story is amazing amd I also work for the Stetson family now and they are wonderful amd amazing people I’ve ever meet
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…
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.
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.
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
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!
My dad also was a physician there from 1945 until it closed. His office was in the hospital and I was born there in 1948. We also played in the lab and sat with the telephone operator! It was truly a family and I remember the hospital picnics growing up. After it closed my dad moved his office into JB Stetson’s office until it was demolished.
Pat Steffa O
Your father wouldn’t be Samuel Shapiro by any chance, would it? He was our family doctor and delivered both me and my sister at Stetson Hospital. I think his office was on 4th Street.
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.
I grew up on 1700 block of Orianna st in the 60,s
I live at 1745 N 3rd now…would love to hear some history!
I was born in Stetson Hospital in 1952. Thank you for the great article.
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.
Great story! I just happened upon this article which I found especially interesting because I along with my partner purchased and saved the Stetson Mansion in central
Florida, John B Stetson’s winter estate 1886. Steton Mansion is Florida’s first luxury estate and one of the first homes in the world to be desinged with Thomas Edison electricity. The mansion is not only our home but it is also a successful landmark attraction that welcomes thousands of guests every year from around the globe. In fact in 2016 TripAdvisor named the Stetson Mansion as “Florida’s Most Popular Tourist Attrattion”, I think Philly natives would enjoy learning more about JBS and how the mansion was saved from the wrecking ball. You can learn more about it at StetonMansion.com. Enjoy!
What was the name of the school inside what us now called the John Stetson school at B and Allegheny. This school was for pregnant girls in the late 80’s.
John B Stetson Junior High
“Raise aloft the standard
of glorious green and white.
There’s victory in those emerald
folds. There’s wisdom’s shining light
So classmates brave and loyal
With shouts that mount the skies,
We praise our alma mater,
Our Stetson Junior High.
John B Stetson Jr high.
I graduated there in 1972. Never heard that it was a school for pregnant teens.
The school is co-Ed.
I grew up in north Philadelphia and, many neighbors worked for the Stetson hat company and, many mills and, clothing factories in the area.
My Mom, June Rocklin Robbins is over 93 years old, and just asked me the other day to look up info on the hospital where she was born, September 20, 1926. Imagine our surprise when we found out the building is not only still standing, but the old Stetson Hospital is still being utilized (by JEVS)!
My father was a physician at Stetson Hospital from when he returned from World War II until it closed. I was born there in 1948. After St. Luke’s made it land to take it over my father moved into John B. Stetson’s off ice across the street. He also was a doctor in the dispensary for Stetson workers. I remember going to the hospital to play in the lab or to sit with the hospital telephone operator. The doctors and nurses were like a family and there were many picnics and parties that we all attended. Stetson Hospital was a huge part of my childhood and I have many fond memories of “growing up” there.
We lived at 423 W. Berks Street.
We, Dennis, Ron and Sandy Mills,
Walked past this hospital for years, on our way to St. Michaels on 2nd Street. I was stitched up and wrapped up many times at Stetson, with my childhood injuries. My Father was hospitalized there from a heart attack. He used to drop change to us from his 3rd floor window, as spending money on the way to school. We spent many hours in the main waiting area on the main floor, near the candy machine. My Mother was cared for at Stetson, when she had cancer. She died at Stetson.
I was the last person to be born in Stetson Maternity Ward. The hospital actually stopped having babies born there but my mother insisted that our family doctor deliver me therein 1962. Because my 4 other older siblings were born there. Left the hospital Thanksgiving day 1962.
I was born at Stetson Hospital in 1951. We lived northeast of there, 3800 N. Franklin Street,north of Erie Ave, between Butler and Pike.
I also was born at Stetson Hospital in July 1953. My other connection is my mother worked there as a nurse from 1951 She was still there when St Luke’s took over running the hospital and transfered to St Luke at 8th and Girard when the facility was closed. The neighborhood became very dangerous and security would lock up the night nurses cars behind gates and escort them to and from their cars
I LOVED this article; Was inspired (compelled) to then write a long response remembering times visiting at 1450 No. 4th St (across from Seiberlich’s Tobacco and their chained -outside wooden cigar store Indian, Joe Mc Veigh’s Oyster Saloon, the corner candy store, the sign “Midwife” in the windows 4th St.) This is among the many reasons I treasure Hidden Philadelphia.I did not know to whom to send my screed. madeleine frances xavier cabrini mc hugh pierucci
I was born at Stetson Hospital. My aunt and uncle worked their whole lives at Stetson Hat Co.So many memories.Walking to St.Michael’s for church.I worked at the company the year before I went into the Army.Thanks for the story.
Thanks! I was born at Stetson Hospital and appreciate the information about it!
My Mother Anna was born at Stetson hospital in 1927. She just turned 95. My sister was born there in 1949, me in 1950 & my brother in 1952. I weighed less than 5 lbs & was put into an incubator till I reached 5 lbs. My Mother always spoke highly of Mr Stetson & how he helped so many people. Thank you for all the research, I only knew he about the Hospital & the Stetson Hat factory. All very interesting info! 😃
During the fire in the 1980s there was a news report that firefighters found a bell in the factory tower. It also was said that this bell was made in the same foundry that Liberty bell was made in.
Does anyone know what happened to this bell?