Large demolition sites are fascinating and terrifying. They serve as a physical reminder of the impermanence of accomplishments, the acceleration of time with age, and, in the case of Mt. Sinai Hospital in South Philadelphia, the vulnerability of broad-shouldered architecture to real estate development on the quick. At present, Mt. Sinai, at 4th and Reed, appears to have been torn apart by domestic warfare. Since work began late last year, the modern addition, built in 1987, has been reduced to a pile of powdered brick and mangled steel. Industrial viscera spills out of a massive, ten-story incision along the chest and belly of the 86-year-old Art Deco tower designed by Hungarian-born Jewish architect Louis Magaziner.
The hospital, and its founding organizations Beth Israel Hospital Association, Franklin Free Dispensary, and the Mount Sinai Hospital Association, was originally established to provide healthcare for the underserved low income Jewish population in South Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century. (Read our 2012 story on the history of Mt. Sinai HERE) Construction of the main building was completed in 1905 on the site of a former lumberyard. Over the next decade the hospital would see two new buildings—a 146 foot tall addition to the main building and a small outpatient center, both designed by Magaziner. The hospital continued to prosper after it merged with local Jewish healthcare systems Northern Liberties Hospital and the Jewish Hospital for the Aged, Infirmed and Destitute (precursor to Einstein Medical Center) in the 1950s. Several new additions were constructed in the 1980s. With Mt. Sinai hemorrhaging money, the Graduate Health System purchased the facility in 1988. Unable to financially sustain an emergency room and other key services, the facility was sold again, this time to Allegheny Health System, in 1996. Mt. Sinai Hospital closed for good the following year.
Over the last decade, the site has gone under development contract five times. In 2007, Manhattan-based development company Polygon Partners announced plans to convert the original main building into 201 condominiums and build an additional 27 townhouses on hospital grounds. Plans for the residential project, The Sophia, were dashed at the last minute when one of Polygon’s investors withdrew days before settlement, leaving the project undercapitalized. Several plans later, Concordia Group and partner Greg Hill purchased the hospital complex for $6 million in October 2015 in order to clear the site and install 95 faux historic row houses and four rain gardens, designed by architectural firm Barton Partners.
The sprawling hospital campus has indeed burdened the surrounding neighborhood with vacancy, vandalism, and blight since closing its doors 19 years ago. Concordia Group and partner Hill have chosen to raze the historic buildings rather than pursue a prudent balance of reuse and new construction for the site. The decision was largely expected, but unfortunate as it signals both the continued erosion of South Philadelphia’s fading Jewish history and an off-kilter housing market that values low density over high. The difference between 95 design-regressive units and the 228 planned in 2007 is the difference between neighborhood vitality and a city that too often just trudges along.
Take a walk inside Mt. Sinai Hospital in its final days. Photographs by Michael Bixler.