If you look up defunct hospitals in New York City, you’ll see one name after another—St. Clare’s, Stuyvesant Polyclinic, North General, Cabrini Medical Center and, most recently, St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village.
But closer to Chelsea was a hospital that is all but forgotten today—the French Hospital between Eighth and Ninth avenues, with entrances on both 29th and 30th streets. Today, the two hospital buildings have been converted into the “French Apartments.” The fleur-de-lis, a traditional emblem of France, decorating the front awnings is one of the few reminders of the building’s former identity, along with a few signs etched in concrete, such as “Clinic Entrance.”
The hospital was established in the 19th century by the Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance, and successively occupied buildings on West 14th Street and West 34th Street. It soon outgrew those facilities, and in 1928, then-Mayor Jimmy Walker laid the cornerstone for the facility on 30th Street.
Fairly early on, the hospital dropped its original mission of serving the French community exclusively and dedicated itself to serving patients regardless of their backgrounds. A New York Times article from February 1928, announcing plans for the new building, declared that “less than 10 percent of all patients are of French blood.”
The announcement of the plans for a new building was followed by a colorful whirl of fundraisers that attracted the city’s elite—an exhibit of French art at the Wildenstein Gallery, a benefit performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience,” a dinner at the Waldorf, a drive headed by pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart and more. Remember, these were the days before Medicare, Medicaid and other forms of government funding for hospitals, so private funding was all-important.
Finally, in 1929, the new hospital was dedicated and opened. Its most famous patient was Babe Ruth, who stayed in French Hospital for four months in 1946 and 1947. Doctors there removed a malignant tumor in the Babe’s neck, found that the cancer had spread extensively, and treated him with radiation. Ruth’s condition improved to the extent that he was able to go to promotional events such as golf tournaments and a “Babe Ruth Day” at Yankee Stadium. All this time, he was never told he had cancer. He finally figured it out in 1948 after he was taken to Memorial Hospital – now Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
The French Hospital also figured in a famous scene from “The Godfather.” Don Vito Corleone is taken there after being shot in an attempted assassination. The rival gang pays off a corrupt cop to arrest the men guarding Don Vito. Michael Corleone arrives, sees what’s going on, and secretly moves his father to another room. He and a family friend, Enzo the baker, then stand outside the hospital with their hands in their jackets as if they’re carrying guns and succeed in scaring off the people who have come to take another whack at the Don.
The one thing the French Hospital couldn’t do was break even. From the late 1940s on, the hospital reported shortfalls and sought additional revenue. The Ford Foundation gave $116,200 in 1953. There were more fundraisers, often headlined by celebrities such as Ethel Merman and Harry Belafonte. But it still wasn’t enough. The French Hospital entered Chapter 11 in 1973, and in May 1977, it closed its doors for good. The French Apartments, which its website describes as a Section 8-based development containing “a gorgeous garden and playground,” opened within the former hospital buildings in 1981.