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. [ … ]