BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Aug. 18, 1 p.m.: The oldest specialized hospital in the Western Hemisphere, the East Village’s New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, could be sold off as the latest new development site, warn doctors, patients and preservationists.
Village Preservation led a press conference last week at which the threat was outlined and the benefits and history of the facility were touted.
Staff at NYEE fear that Mount Sinai Health System plans to sell the two buildings comprising the facility — the historic one built in the 1800s at the corner of 13th Street and Second Avenue and the adjacent 1960s one just to the north.
The site was previously slated by Mount Sinai for the construction of a new mini hospital when the health provider was still planning to close its historic Gramercy hospital campus at 17th Street and First Avenue. However, that major hospital rebuilding plan — which would have involved the sale of the lucrative Gramercy property — was scrapped last summer.
Speaking last week, Andrew Berman, Village Preservation’s executive director, said, “We’re here to say to the city, ‘Protect this building.'”
Berman noted that NYEE was founded by the “fathers of opthamology” and was where the first successful cataract surgery in the Western Hemisphere was performed. Since 1856, the eye and ear institution has occupied the E. 13th Street building.
Helen Keller, the renowned blind and deaf author and activist, spoke at a ribbon-cutting at the complex in 1903.
The infirmary was also used by director Francis Ford Coppola in “The Godfather” for the scene where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) saves his father Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) before he can be rubbed out.
In May, at the urging of Village Preservation, state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein wrote a letter to Mayor Adams and Sarah Carroll, the chairperson of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, in support of landmarking the older building, 218 Second Ave.
“The Infirmary is designed in the style of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, a prominent style of the mid-to-late 19th Century, featuring heavy rock-faced stone, round masonry arches, transom windows and clustered blind arches,” the pols wrote. “The architecture of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary provides an insight to the history of the city and is an important part of art history as a whole. It contributes to New York City as a mecca of art and history and is significant to our architectural and cultural heritage. It is with our full support that the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary be recognized as a New York City Landmark.”
Whereas Hoylman and Epstein wrote in full support of the landmarking effort, Village Preservation noted at the time that, “Councilmember Carlina Rivera has thus far been unresponsive.”
As of this week, Rivera has still not supported the landmarking and new Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine “has said that he will not,” according to Village Preservation.
In response to the request, L.P.C. has said that the building “may merit consideration as an individual landmark,” but has not yet taken any action.
Meanwhile, Mount Sinai has reportedly been cutting services at the infirmary, paving the way for its sale.
According to the New York Post, “One insider said that Mount Sinai has been ‘surgically chopping up’ the Infirmary for more than a year. The number of operating rooms is being reduced from 18 to nine. …
“In a recent video conference for senior staff, Infirmary president Dr. James Tsai discussed relocations planned for Eye and Ear’s surgery department, faculty practice, emergency room, research facilities and other units to Manhattan satellite sites owned by Sinai…[including] the Beth Israel campus on First Avenue at 17th Street, 1115 Broadway and 10 Union Square East.
“All this is being done very stealthily, a slow roll,” an insider told the Post. “They don’t want to draw attention to it. When you scatter all the functions, it isn’t really New York Eye and Ear anymore.”
Similarly, last June, based on an East Villager’s tip, The Village Sun reported that Mount Sinai, in February 2021, had “closed” the NYEE outpatient ENT (ear, nose and throat) clinic at 14th St. and Second Ave., relocating it to the Upper East Side near the main Mount Sinai Hospital.
“They’re shutting down their clinic,” the source said, complaining that he would now have to travel 5 miles uptown for treatment.
He also forwarded a link about the NYEE ENT outpatient clinic, which noted that it was “discontinuing general ENT services.”
However, when queried back then, a Mount Sinai spokesperson denied the reduction of services.
“NYEE has not closed outpatient or inpatient services — not sure what you are hearing,” the flack said. “Whomever you are talking to is misinformed. Inpatient and outpatient services at NYEE are open.”
After this article’s publication, a Mount Sinai Health System spokesperson provided the following statement denying that the institution is closing:
“NYEE is not closing,” he said. “Due to longstanding trends in the movement of ophthalmology and ENT from inpatient to ambulatory care, Mount Sinai Health System has embarked on a multimillion-dollar plan to strengthen and modernize all NYEE programs and services by moving them into new and newly renovated ambulatory settings. And not a single current NYEE service — clinical, educational or research — will be closing as a result of this transformation.
“In short, we are investing tens of millions to modernize and expand the institution to ensure it can continue serving New Yorkers and training the next generation of specialists.
“This process will take months to initiate and years to complete, and through all of it NYEE will remain open and available to all its patients. We look forward to working with our staff, our patients and our community to make this transformation a success and preserve the innovative legacy of NYEE into the 21st century.”
The Village Sun, in turn, asked the spokesperson, “So will Mount Sinai be selling off any of the NYEE site for development?” and is awaiting a response.