Cocktails and Curiosities Blog

Unique in New York: The Northern Dispensary

Built in 1831 as a medical clinic for the poor, the triangular Northern Dispensary is unique in New York:  It has one side on two streets, Christopher & Grove, and it has two sides on only one street, Waverly Place.

We know from public records that in 1829 the dispensary’s bank balance was $11.17 and in 1832 it treated 3,296 patients.  In 1837 Edgar Allan Poe was treated for a nasty head cold and released.

Later, after full-service hospitals were opened around the city, the building housed a dental clinic.  Alas, the organization that ran the dental clinic refused to treat patients with AIDS, and in 1989 the clinic closed after the the city’s Human Rights Commission slapped it with a $47,000 fine.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York purchased the property in ’89 and hoped to open an SRO for AIDS patients, but local opposition spooked the diocese and it sold the dispensary to a real estate investor in 1998.

The Northern Dispensary has been vacant and unused ever since, perhaps because its deed requires it to be used “to serve the worthy poor.”  If the building is not used to serve the poor, its ownership automatically reverts back to the City of New York, according to the deed.

You might think it was very progressive, way back in 1827 when the dispensary was chartered, for the city to require free health care services for the poor.  “Ah, the worthy poor!  How noble!  How generous!”

But don’t get to feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.   Keeping the poor healthy & productive was good for business and reduced the spread of disease to the not-so-poor, and the dispensary served as a place to separate them from general society.

How did the dispensary’s powers-that-be feel about their “worthy poor”?  The original board of directors asked donors to pity the doctors who had to work at the clinic and deal with “the miserable and degraded of our species, loathsome from disease and disgusting morals.”

Today the three-sided Northern Dispensary just sits and waits to serve, slowly decaying.  Its owner, Gottlieb Real Estate, is notorious for its eccentric founder, the late Bill Gottlieb, “a rumpled, elusive fellow who would walk the streets carrying shopping bags stuffed with cash and documents.”

If you peer inside the windows you’ll see dust, debris, rusting dental equipment and jackknifed filing cabinets.  Fourteen years is a long time for a a beautiful old building to be abandoned.   We hope she gets some well-deserved love, and soon.



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