“No patient is ever sent away from this hospital by reason of the advanced condition of his or her ailment.” -Motto of the House of Rest for Consumptives
In April of 1902 a real estate advertisement in the New York Herald caught the eye of Woodbury G. Langdon.
Langdon, a member of one of America’s oldest families, was born on Astor Place in 1849 into a life of wealth and luxury. Having attended the finest schools in France and Switzerland, Langdon returned to New York after his father’s death in 1869 to assume a life of philanthropy.
And on this spring day, more than a century ago, Langdon, with his kind face, long walrus-like mustache and piercing close-set eyes, set his sights on a hilltop property on Bolton Road, in what is now Inwood Hill Park.
The sizable estate on the northernmost tip of Manhattan was a woodland oasis overlooking the Hudson and the Palisades to the west. Just north of Dyckman Street the home was conveniently located within walking distance of the New York Central railroad station at Tubby Hook, as the region had formerly been called.
Langdon was intrigued.
Langdon had special needs; he was acting President of a facility that treated tuberculosis patients, and the Inwood location, far from the cramped squalor of downtown, where so many of his patients had become infected with the dreaded “white plague,” seemed to offer the isolation and fresh air needed to keep his charges comfortable.
And this new lead seemed promising.
The advertisement mentioned that the estate, essentially two “twin” houses set side by side, came fully furnished and included a grand piano, an organ, carpets, lace curtains, rich rosewood parlor furniture, a billiard table, chairs, couches, rockers, furnished bedrooms, twenty-five live spring chickens and a great Dane.
With a few conversions the identical three-story structures could prove more than suitable for his thirty-five patients who had been residing at Saint Luke’s Hospital since outgrowing their former home in Westchester County a year earlier.
The sale, conducted by Benjamin S. Wise, was to take place in Wise’s auction house on 125th Street at 10:30 am on April 8, 1902.
That Tuesday morning Langdon followed through on his plan and purchased the property. The Kidwell and McDonough twin houses, actually two separate properties consisting of some twenty-seven acres, cost Langdon $75,325.
Founded in 1869 in Tremont, (Westchester County), The Hospital and House of Rest for Consumptives, had been created as a “haven of rest” for tuberculosis patients, mainly the indigent and incurable, “without regard to race, creed or color.”
In those early years, the hospital was one of only two of its kind in the nation and was directed by then Bishop Horatio Potter with financial support of a Miss E. A. Bogle, who had lost her own mother to the dreaded disease.
Now, thirty-three years later, Langdon was at the helm, but the mission of the House of Rest had changed very little.
Surveying his purchase, Langdon realized he had made a prudent investment. Inwood Hill would provide the ideal location for his institution. He immediately invested $10,000 in renovations.
Langdon estimated that he would need to house roughly thirty-five patients as well as a sizable staff of nurses, kitchen help and groundskeepers.
Under Langdon’s direction, contractors created a porte-cochère that connected the two homes on the second floor. Fire escapes and other alterations were made to suit Langdon’s needs. A common veranda would provide his patients with fresh air and an open environment where the sick and dying could spend their final days in some semblance of comfort.
But as Langdon was toiling away on the hill his Inwood neighbors, seemingly caught off guard by this latest development in the real estate market, plotted his demise.
Consumption, or the “The White Plague,” as it was commonly called, was sometimes romanticized in the nineteenth century. American writer Henry David Thoreau succumbed to the “Gentle Death” in 1862 at the age of forty-four.
Some considered a death by tuberculosis a civilized death. The slow and wasting progression of the illness gave sufferers an opportunity to prepare to meet their maker as well as put their affairs in order before shedding their mortal coil.
Still, the disease stuck fear in the hearts of any sane individual.
Tuberculosis had been around since the dawn of man. Recent scientific studies have proven that our Neolithic ancestors suffered from the disease. Tests on the spinal columns of five-thousand-year-old Egyptian mummies have also tested positive for tubercular decay. Nearly five hundred years before the birth of Christ Hippocrates wrote of “Phthisis,” a horrifying and widespread disease whose symptoms included fever and coughing up blood. Tuberculosis, especially in crowded urban areas, was merely an ugly fact of life.
Symptoms of active tuberculosis include a chronic cough accompanied by blood-tinged sputum, night sweats, fever and the extreme weight loss that led many to call the condition “Consumption.” Even today, left untreated, tuberculosis patients face a fifty percent mortality rate.
In May of 1902, with no viable cure or treatment on the horizon, the City of New York issued a health ordinance that made it legal to both remove tuberculosis patients from their homes and detain them “whether they have been willing to enter or remain in a hospital or not.”
Nurses and inspectors were hired to visit suspected cases in their homes. The ordinance also required landlords to renovate or disinfect apartments “after their vacation either by death or removal.” (NYC Dept. of Health, “Brief History of the Campaign Against Tuberculosis in New York City”, 1908).
Sadly, many patients, including those later placed in the house of Rest, were shunned by family and friends. Many would die alone in bleak institutions far from home.
The sanitarium movement offered the slim hope of a cure through fresh air and isolation, but, in reality, these asylums were built to quarantine patients from the general population. Mortality rates were high and while some pharmacists offered cures, their potions, advertised in every newspaper of the day, were the product of wishful thinking and outright fraud.
In 1902, there was no cure. One either lived or died; the latter being the most common outcome.
Looking back it is understandable that the citizens of the little burg of Inwood would be frightened to learn that a hospital for contagious incurables was being constructed in their own backyard.
In March of 1903, residents opposing the “colony,” as they referred to the House of Rest, appealed to the Board of Health and hired renowned attorney Eugene A. Philbin to represent the interests of surrounding property owners.
Langdon, whether he knew it or not, had drawn the ire of some pretty powerful folks. These neighbors included the estates of dry goods titan James McCreery, Isidor Straus, the co-owner of Macy’s who later drowned on the Titanic and even the family of William B. Isham, whose descendants later donated their land to the city for use as a park.
A New York Herald reporter would write, “Residents of the upper part of Washington Heights and all of the Inwood section are aroused over the proposition to locate consumptives near them. They assert that the health of their families will be endangered, and a determined fight is to be made to prevent the board of health from issuing a permit for the opening of the establishment.” (New York Herald, March 10, 1903)
To bolster their charges, Inwood residents engaged the services of local physician Dr. Thomas Darlington to speak on their behalf.
Darlington argued that, in addition to the reckless and dangerous decision to place a sanitarium for incurables so close to a healthy population, the location itself might prove deleterious to the health of the patients the hospital intended to serve.
“Winds from the Hudson River sweep through the Inwood valley with great force,” said Dr. Darlington. “If it is the purpose of the trustees of the House of Rest to quickly end the days of their patients, the site would have advantages.” (New York Herald, March 10, 1903)
Health Commissioner Dr. Ernst J. Lederle sided with the House of Rest.
The sanitarium would not be the first or the last institution to line the ridge of Inwood Hill. Local residents had long accepted the existence a notorious asylum for wayward women, the House of Mercy, which opened its doors in 1890. (Lederle himself would die in an upstate sanitarium for nervous invalids of septic poisoning in 1921. According to his New York Times obituary, he suffered from “a nervous ailment that made him shrink from meeting others. When out walking alone or with an attendant he would strive to avoid any one who was approaching him.) It would seem that, in the end, working with infectious incurables drove him to madness.
His legal battles behind him, Langdon returned to the business he knew best—running a hospital for the wretched and the damned.
Financial woes were a constant threat. The House of Rest relied on private funding and the stigma of the disease and the remoteness of the hospital made fundraising difficult.
Year’s later hospital officials would complain, “The difficulty of interesting people in the work of the institution has been greatly increased by the anti-tuberculosis agitation because a hospital must be shown to visitors if it is to interest, and if visitors are afraid to visit, such exhibition of the work is obviously impracticable.” (New York Sun, January 15, 1912)
In 1909, facing both bankruptcy and a shortage of beds, the Superintendent of the House of Rest, George Sauer, made a heartfelt plea to the public.
“As the institution is supported by voluntary contributions, this annual deficit is going to cripple the house badly,” Sauer implored. “And unless the public responds to the appeal put forth in the last report it may have to close its doors.” (New York Daily Tribune, May 18, 1909)
In order to help solicit public support, as well as donations, Sauer cherry-picked some recent success stories from the asylum’s recent past:
“One young woman from Denver,” Mr. Sauer reported, “who had applied through the Charity Organization Society for admission to a hospital in New York was refused because they thought she was near death, came to us and is apparently a well woman now. Her improvement was steady from the time we admitted her, and at the end of ten months she returned to Denver and married there. Another, a New York girl, who contracted consumption while working behind the counter in a great department store, has been with us five months and gained thirty-five pounds in that time. Still another New York girl, Annie Kenny, only sixteen years old has been at the House of Rest thirteen months. When she came she was very ill, but we have had her sleeping outdoors on the piazza, and she is getting better steadily; soon she will be transferred to the state sanatorium, to which she was too ill to go at first. The fresh air treatment, together with care and nourishment, has done wonders for many patients.” (New York Daily Tribune, May 18, 1909)
Sauer stated that funds were needed immediately to complete a bungalow to house a dozen female patients. Built to house thirty-five convalescents, the House of rest now cared for forty-eight.
For a time Sauer’s appeal went unheard, but his requests for donations continued. In 1912 New York newspapers were bombarded with further pleas in the form of thumbnail size advertisements. They read:
“The House of Rest for Consumptives at Inwood-on-Hudson, New York City, has, in the forty years of its existence, never sent away a patient to die. Men and women, irrespective of creed or nationality, in the advanced and hopeless stages of tuberculosis are here treated under the best conditions. There are tents and bungalows for incipient cases.”
Sauer’s pleas and prayers for financial assistance were finally answered in the Spring of the following year.
On March 14, 1913 thirty-four year old Mrs. Andrew C. Zabriskie, wife of the House of Rest’s Vice-President, hosted a fundraiser inside the couple’s home on West 53rd Street.
Before an audience of thirty-five women of means and influence, the Zabriskie and other officers of the House of Rest presented their case.
According to the New York Times, “Vice President Andrew C. Zabriskie, in making his report, said that while the Hospital and House of Rest was somewhat isolated and difficult to approach, it had the advantage of plenty of open ground and fresh air. He said that the death rate in the institution was higher than the average general hospital in New York City, but explained that this was due to the willingness of the officers to admit all cases, even in the most advanced stages. The Institution, he said, had at present about sixty-five beds, and was making preparations to open soon a children’s ward with ten more beds.”
The plea was received with great enthusiasm and a Woman’s Auxiliary Board was formed.
For the next decade, the annual Butterfly Ball, hosted by the Women’s Auxiliary, would become a popular high society event.
According to one faded invitation, a box seat to a Butterfly Ball held at the Ritz Carlton cost fifty dollars. The evening included a sit-down supper with entertainment by Brooke Johns followed by a performance by Siry’s Orchestra.
The year the Board was formed, 1913, the House of Rest cared for 133 patients. Of those 133, forty-three were discharged and twenty-one died.
For the next six years the House of Rest seemingly settled into a routine. The hospital continued to treat anyone and everyone, the Ritz Carlton continued to host benefits and the House of Rest was able to pay its bills.
Then tragedy struck.
In April of 1919, philanthropist Woodbury Gersdorf Langdon, the much beloved patron of the House of Rest died after a two-month illness.
Langdon had been a father figure to so many patients who had been abandoned by their own families. While he would be sorely missed, his legacy ensured that the House of Rest would endure.
For years, the Inwood House of Rest for Consumptives, aided by the Ladies Auxiliary, managed to stay out of the news.
Then, in July of 1926, the hospital faced one of their greatest tests.
For three weeks that summer the institution endured what the newspapers called a “water famine.” Simply put, the House of Rest had no water. The pipes had all gone dry.
Dealing with a fragile patient population, without access to water, presented a never-ending series of challenges. Drinking water was a major concern; as were cooking and bathing. The situation was maddening. Given the House of Rest’s remote location, perched atop a high ridge, even a hastily formed bucket brigade had a difficult time delivering even the minimum supply needed to keep the residents hydrated.
The outage also created drought-like conditions for the hospital’s vast vegetable garden, which, under the right conditions, supplied a bounty of lettuce, tomatoes, beans, radishes, Swiss chard and carrots.
There was also the ever-present danger of fire during the dry summer months.
A 1916 fire, which started in the barn of neighbor Cornelius Kalem, had come very close to destroying the institution. Old-timers remembered well how firemen, assisted by sixty Boy Scouts who happened to be out on a hike, stretched 3,500 feet of hose to combat an inferno whose 100 foot flames could be seen from lower Manhattan.
“For a time the flames menaced the House of Mercy, with its 200 children,” The New York Herald reported, “and the House of Rest, with about thirty patients. All of these were taken into the yards and from there they had grand stand seats for the fire.” (New York Herald, April 17, 1916)
That blaze was eventually extinguished after a fire truck capable of ascending steep grades, known as a “mountain climber,” was dispatched from Engine Company 95 on West 181st Street.
House of Rest superintendent, Miss Ida Porter, realized they had been lucky in the Spring of 1916. But conditions were different this time around. Summer was now at it’s peak. The dry forest that surrounded the facility was a tinderbox. The smallest spark could spell their doom.
“The faucets at the hospital went dry,” Porter told a reporter from the New York Post. “Nobody knew why.” (New York Post, July 1926)
The fire hydrants were dry as well.
Porter, a woman of some foresight, was a prepared as anyone could have been to endure this terrible calamity. She had stockpiled milk-cans and buckets after a similar outage the previous year.
But still, Porter feared the worst.
“The sixty-year-old hospital buildings are wood. I was alarmed by the fire menace. We have eighty patients, including ten children, and twenty-five nurses, cooks and assistants sleeping here.”
As soon as she realized the pipes had run dry, Porter telephoned the city’s Water Department only to be told the problem was the responsibility of the Department of Parks, under whose authority Inwood Hill was being converted for public use.
“Finally I appealed to the Department of Street Cleaning, and its officials were the only ones that helped us. They aided us wonderfully. They rushed two water trucks up here, and kept sending two tanks of water every day.”
“Men patients carried the water in milk cans and buckets to various wards of the hospital. Nobody went thirsty, but the situation was trying.”
“We could stand on our front porch and see the Hudson River, flowing wide with water, down there through the trees. It was an odd experience. Here we were—right in New York City—and no water. An underground pipe must have broken. But we never found where.”
Throughout the “water famine,” Miss Porter and her nursing staff kept their patients nourished and hydrated by feeding them ”milk cocktails,” a mixture of milk and several farm fresh eggs.
When the water mysteriously began to flow once again, Porter proclaimed:
“I’m still thinking of what we’d have done without any water if there had been a fire one night these last weeks. We’d have burned up, that’s all!”
Ultimately, it was not a raging inferno, but the Parks Department that brought an end to the House of Rest’s near idyllic existence in the forest overlooking the shimmering Hudson River.
The land was needed for a new public green-space, Inwood Hill Park.
With little warning, the House of Rest, the House of Mercy and all of their other neighbors would have to relocate.
Not long after the great “Water Famine” of 1926 the Inwood House of Rest would merge with the Sprain Ridge Hospital in nearby Yonkers.
“I’m glad we’re going,” Miss Porter told the Post reporter, ‘We’ll not have to worry about water then.”
But, for the moment, the reporter wrote, “There was merry splashing today in the hospital’s shower baths and soup was on the luncheon menu again.”