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.