Remembering Goldwater Hospital in NYC

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Goldwater Hospital from the Queensboro Bridge in 1938The digging, crashing, smashing and clanging will echo over the East River for a couple more years, as Cornell Tech builds a new campus on Roosevelt Island where the Goldwater Hospital stood since 1939.

The patients, many confined to wheel-chairs, have been moved to Coler Hospital at the North End of Roosevelt Island, or to the renovated old North General Hospital in Harlem (now the Henry J. Carter Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility).

The Goldwater Hospital was a monument to the golden years of public health in New York City, designed in distinctive chevrons to offer light and air to all its patients. The rooms had terraces to allow patients direct access to fresh air, and each ward featured a solarium. The hospital had 2,700 windows.

HospPlansArchitect Charles Giraudet spent several weeks documenting the facility before its demolition in early 2014, and created an archive of over 15,000 photographs. Works Progress Administration / Federal Arts Project murals decorated common areas, featuring unusual abstract subjects and designs from Ilya Bolotowsky, Albert Swinden, Theodore Haupt and Joseph Rugolo. The Bolotowsky mural was restored, partially by the artist himself in 1981 before he died, with work overseen by his son finished later.

The public health thinking underlying the Goldwater Hospital reflected a shift from the emphasis on epidemics and infant mortality to chronic disease and care of the aged as life spans increased. Dr. Sigismund Schulz Goldwater, health commissioner under Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, had a vision for serving emerging needs and training young doctors in research. The founding staff saw an opportunity for longitudinal research, based on its chronic long-term patients. Both New York University and Columbia ran research units there. There was also secret War Department research on malaria and human tolerance for heat and cold, as well as minimum food (starvation) studies. These studies used conscientious objectors and volunteers. Anne Yoder, an archivist for the Swarthmore College Peace Collection has written about this work in  “Human Guinea Pigs in CPS Detached Service, 1943-1946“.

Abstraction by Ilya BolotowskyIn its early years Goldwater cared for polio patients and ran a wheelchair repair shop with a national reputation for innovation and patient service. Mike Acevedo, nicknamed Dr. Wheelchair, ran it as a “wheel chair pit-stop that maintained and repaired a stock of more than 2,000 wheelchairs.” In his early work during the Vietnam era, they would scavenge parts from model airplanes to use as controls.

The island was a pioneer in creating barrier free environments with curb cuts, elevators, wide doors, and low counters, according to Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, which has extensively documented this history, and has a rich archive on the hospital, its leading doctors and some of its patients. She says that the hospital and associated research institutes have hosted many outstanding research scientists and doctors, including hospital director Dr. David Seegal who made advances in nephritis and rheumatic fever, and Julius Axlerod who won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for neuro-pharmalogical research relating to pain relief. Important studies of tuberculosis, arthritis and cirrhosis were also conducted there.

Wheelchair Repair - 30There was a nursing school and residence on the island. The Central Nurses Residence had 600 rooms, built by the Works Progress Administration. New York City ran the School of Practical Nursing from 1948-to 1970. One of the most famous nurses is best known outside of her work with patients. Jazz singer Alberta Hunter worked at Goldwater for 20 years, but is most known for her blues recordings of the teens to 1940s. Concealing her age, she studied for a nursing degree, and upon retirement started singing again until she died at age 89.

Long-term patients developed strong relationships with staff and the nursing facility operated as a home community. Patients created art in the art studio and published writing from their literary workshops. Yvonne South, a self-taught painter who was a double amputee, did two paintings that hung in the visitor center.

The powerful public health messages of the Goldwater facility were embedded in the building and campus, surrounded by its healing vistas of the East River and Manhattan skylines. The dispersal of the Goldwater community to Harlem and to Coler signals more than the re-purposing of a city hospital. It reflects a radical shift away from investing in people and public health, in favor of the cyborg, a technology campus that can spit out electronic innovations that bypass human bodies entirely, unless they are eager young PhD working on synthetic organisms. Technology has accomplished amazing things in the medical field, but the Goldwater Hospital story is a reminder that people – flesh, blood and bodies – are a necessary part of the field too.

Photos from above: Goldwater Hospital from the Queensboro Bridge in 1938; Hospital Plan (courtesy Roosevelt Island Historical Society); mural by Ilya Bolotowsky (courtesy RIHS); Wheelchair Repair Room (photo by Charles Giraudet).

13 thoughts on “Remembering Goldwater Hospital in NYC

  1. James S. Kaplan

    Excellent and fascinating article on an important aspect of New York City’s history previously unknown to virtually all New Yorkers

  2. Catherine Griffin

    Was a nursing student at Queens College, 1967 – 1969. Goldwater hospital was part of our hospital rotation. Quite unforgettable . Thought it was long gone by now! A different era with an obviously dedicated staff.


  3. Maria roman

    Worked at Goldwater Hospital as new nurse. My great experience. Patients and staff then very caring. Helped me pursue my career. Feel blessed I worked their.

  4. adrienne

    I was a college volunteer at Goldwater Hospital. At that time..late 60s, i took the train across the 59th street bridge coming from bklyn college.
    I remember climbing down a ladder by the bridge to get onto the campus.
    My charge was a young woman in a wheelchair named Nadine whom i tutored .

    As i think back, it was a difficult trek to get onto the island.

  5. Stephen Kilcooley

    I was the Fire Marshall from 1993 to 2010. There were a lot of great memories of the staff and patients.
    Goldwater memorial hospital may be gone, but it is not forgotten. Very grateful !

  6. Cassius

    To all the people from gold eayef especial sam that played basketball. With robert. E darby my cousin gone but know not forgotton by u and jamek who later married that afro ametican sheriff officer

  7. Graham Wolfson

    My father , Aaron Harry Wolfson was the senior chemist who ran the chemistry lab from the late 40’s until his retirement in 1973. We never knew exactly what he was up to there. We know he was involved in research and different experiments. We always thought he was doing some sort of work for the military. He was a major in the army during WWII. He also worked for army intelligence after the war up until i was born in 1954. At that time he got out of that because he had a son and the work was too dangerous.

    To the day he died in 1976 he never told anyone of us what he was doing all those years. His family would love to know. But attempts to get info from the government have proved to be useless.

  8. Kurt W. Kohn, MD, PhD

    As a third year medical student at Columbia in 1955, I was on a 3-month elective in Columbia’s hypertension research unit at Goldwater. That is where I first heard of the new Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health. Several researchers from Goldwater had been recruited to the NIH clinical staff. Sometimes they referred to the NIH as the ‘Goldwater on the Potomac’. It led to an opportunity to get into medical research, which is what I had been hoping for. (From the middle of the 59th street bridge, there was an elevator that took you and your car down to the island.)

  9. Brian David Madigan

    My great-grandmother was a patient there from 1940 until her death in 1945. I’m glad she spent her final years in such a place, instead of the Hell’s Kitchen and Brooklyn tenements where she lived for over 40 years.

  10. Rochelle Craig

    I worked there as a Recreation Therapist in the early 60s. I wheeled movie projectors into patient’s rooms and brought in room-to-room volunteer entertainment. I most remember the young polio patients in the iron lungs who were so brave. The name I most remember is “Bruce.” I always wonder what replaced the iron lungs and what happened to those patients. I wouldn’t mind if someone emailed me.

    1. Kathleen Hulser Post author

      You did important work for the people who spent so much of their lives there. It was an imaginative design that reminds of us the ambitions New York once had for its public health system.

  11. Elaine

    Thanks for sharing this article,! I enjoyed reading it. I am the granddaughter of a nurse who retired from Goldwater in the nineteen seventies after 38 yrs of service, She told me many things about the hospital and about Mrs. Alberta Hunter. My grandmother told me about when they first started taking out social security when it wasn’t mandatory.


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