A department store becomes a makeshift hospital

This week, plans are underway to turn the glass-encased Jacob Javits Center into a hospital for the expected surge in coronavirus patients. It sounds radical, but it wouldn’t be the first time New York quickly took a massive open space and transformed it into a medical center.

It happened in 1918 with the Siegel-Cooper store, above. When this enormous emporium opened in September 1896, New York shoppers had their minds blown.

Inside a new Beaux-Arts building that spanned Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets—choice real estate along Ladies Mile—”the Big Store” featured 15 acres of more than 100 departments, restaurants, and a soon-to-be-famous fountain.

In its early years, Siegel-Cooper was by all accounts a success. But by the early 1900s, New York’s biggest stores were following Macy’s lead and relocating to Herald Square.

Siegel-Cooper was in financial trouble. After a new owner and name change to “Greenhut’s,” it closed for good in 1918.

What to do with an enormous empty building in what was no longer a prime neighborhood?

Turn it into a makeshift hospital—just in time for the return of American soldiers wounded while fighting the Great War in Europe.

Within months, the store that once featured the latest fashions and even boasted a bicycle department was now known as Debarkation Hospital Number 3, a temporary home for hundreds of doughboys whose conditions ranged from mild to grave.

“In general, debarkation hospitals were intended to receive overseas patients who landed back on United States soil,” states a historical note to a collection of papers from a nurse at Debarkation Hospital No. 5, on Lexington Avenue and 46th Street in the former Grand Central Palace exhibition hall.

New York quickly turned other empty buildings into makeshift debarkation hospitals. One was at Ellis Island, another on Staten Island.

No. 3 was ready for wounded men by November 1918.

“About 250 additional wounded soldiers from overseas arrived here yesterday and were taken to Debarkation Hospital No. 3, the old Greenhut store at 18th Street and Sixth Avenue….The newcomers, all practically recovered, brought the total of soldiers in the hospital up to 700,” wrote the New York Times on November 25.

The six floors of the former store had room for 3,000 soldiers. While entertainers visited and politicians took photo ops, the goal was to help the men convalesce yet get them back to their hometowns, where a hospital closer to loved ones could treat them.

Debarkation Hospital appears to have only served as a medical center for a few years. And if the facade (or the interior columns) look familiar, it’s because the same building now houses Bed, Bath, and Beyond!

[Second photo: unknown; third photo: MCNY X2011.34.280; fourth photo: LOC; fifth photo: Alamy; sixth image: New York Times]

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12 Responses to “A department store becomes a makeshift hospital”

  1. MJ Fleischman Says:

    Thanks for continuing your wonderful posts, framing an historical perspective around our current virus disaster. All good wishes, Martha Fleischman


  2. Bill Vanden-Bulcke Says:

    In the late 1970’s I worked as office manager for a children’s dress firm known ad Youngland. We occupied the 2nd floor of the old Cooper Siegel Iron clad building. Young land was a manufacturer. An old pattern maker (70’s) told me he shopped the store with his Mom. He showed me where some old moorings for hospital beds existed. Also he pointed out where the entrance to the store from the 6th Ave was located at 19th st onto our second floor.
    So glad the frontage was restored for Bed,Bath and Beyond. It was covered for the most part by ugly dark green 25 foot high planking.
    I recall a scene for the Wiz being filmed on 19th st half way to 5 the Ave.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I never saw the building until the late 1990s, after Bed Bath and Beyond took it over, and I can’t imagine anyone covering up the beautiful facade with green planking. But in the 1970s, this stretch of Sixth Avenue to my knowledge was filled with light manufacturing. So hard to imagine all these beautiful old department stores covered up like that.Thank you for sharing.

  3. alaspooryorick Says:

    Now it’s a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. What irony! Without Ephemeral we would have no sense of our own history.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you! Yes, I just love how the building has come full circle. But hopefully it won’t be converted to a hospital next.

    • Kevin Says:

      And remember that the 6th Ave El ran past this building so it was not as exposed as it is today.

  4. Country Paul Says:

    Another wonderful post. “There are a million stories in the Naked City,” and you keep finding them! Thank you.

  5. thenorthwalescritic Says:

    Good to read, write and share in these odd times. Some of my recent reviews if you fancy reading.

  6. mvschulze Says:

    Beautifully timely post heralding the re-purposing of NYC landmarks for the harboring and care of those in need. M 😉

  7. Maureen Murphy Coudret Says:

    Very interesting to me since my father was assigned to the Debarkation Hospital #5 according to his cemetery marker.

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