Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Old Jersey City Medical Center

Jersey City has seen a boom of development over the past two decades. Several monolithic modern towers have been constructed in this time. But did you ever notice the the modest cluster of Art Deco high rises protruding out of the Bergen Hill neighborhood? Driving by now, one would see that it is the Beacon condominium complex. This wasn't always the case however. This group of buildings was originally the Jersey City Medical Center.

It all began in 1885, when the "City Hospital" (former Charity Hospital) of Jersey City moved operations from a dirty old hospital in the Paulus Hook area to it's new location on Baldwin Avenue.

The new hospital would quickly become obsolete though, and in 1909 a new three story castle- like building was completed. At this time there were also several houses on the property, which functioned as temporary hospitals until the new buildings were finished. Once the hospital began to flourish, several more buildings were added. Some of the new buildings were a chapel, a dormitory for the staff, and a morgue. A new house for the hospital administrator was also constructed around 1909.

As Jersey City began to grow, so did the hospital. In 1917, several new buildings were added to the property. One such building included a small power station, which allowed the hospital to generate it's own power. Around this time the original hospital building more than doubled in size as well, as a twin building was built behind it and another floor was added. Two brand new surgical suites were included in the new floor.

Just a year later, construction started on what would be the A. Harry Moore school for crippled children. The Moore school was among the the first in the country specifically focusing on educating children with disabilities. Though the building was originally going to be built at the hospital, a flawed beginning design left the structure of no use for the school. Instead, the school would be built on Kennedy Boulevard. The space originally intended for the school would go on to become the Dr. B. S. Pollak Hospital for Chest Diseases.

The new growth made the hospital really begin to gain a good reputation. This was nothing, however, compared to the expansion it would see in the next few decades.

In 1928, under the direction of mayor Frank Hague, the hospital would begin to see some major expansion. Haugue's vision was to be able to provide free, quality healthcare to residents of the city. The first new building of the complex was the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital.

Named after mayor Frank Hague's late mother, The new ten story maternity hospital would go on to be one of the most well known buildings in all of Jersey City. An estimated 350,000 babies were born here. Speaking to neighbors and others who grew up in the city, more often than not folks were telling me "Sure, that's where I was born!"

Designed by one of the mayor's favorite city architects, Christian Ziegler, the maternity hospital was initially proposed years before the expansion of the medical center. The infant mortality rate in the county peaked in 1923, with roughly one in five births ending with the newborn dead. Numbers didn't fare much better for the mothers, who were also frequently dying in childbirth.

It didn't take long before the hospital built up a positive reputation. Despite having enough space and resources to comfortably attend to roughly 400 mothers, the hospital was quickly reducing the mortality rate for the city. Wards were open late for working fathers to be able to visit their newborn children after getting out of work.

A year after construction started on the maternity hospital, a new surgical building was built directly behind the building from 1909. The imposing 22 story structure was one of the tallest in the city at the time. The new building would be dubbed "Holloway Hall",

Also added in 1929 was a 17 story nurses home, directly adjacent to the power plant. This building was named "Fairbank Hall".

Part of the expansion of the hospital included adding more towers for staff housing, infectious diseases, and other various necessities of the now enormous hospital. This expansion included demolition of some of the buildings built on the property between 1907 and 1917. Two architects would work together to build the hospital up piece by piece. Overseeing the whole project was John T. Rowland, who designed several of Jersey City's more prestigious and well known buildings. Despite the various architects, all the buildings were designed in the same Art Deco fashion. It is by far the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the state, if not the country.

In 1934, construction was started on several new towers. One of which was the Dr. B.S. Pollak Hospital for Chest Diseases. Towering over the complex at 22 stories, the hospital was named for one of the most prominent doctors in the field at the time. Though part of the city medical center, it was operated by Hudson County as their sanatorium during the outbreak of the early mid 1900's. It was the tallest building in Jersey City for over 50 years until the new commercial towers started going up downtown.

One of the other towers built at this time, the "B" building, would house the new main entrance to the complex. The two story lobby was clad in pink marble, with tracery on the ceiling and a decorative terrazzo floor. These buildings were the first to be renovated during the large scale conversion into condominiums in 2007.

A new clinic building was also added to the medical center in 1934, and it was almost a twin of the "C" building it stood behind. Over the years it provided mostly outpatient services.

On October 2nd, 1936, the complex was officially dedicated by then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By this time, the medical center had grown into a towering complex akin to a city of it's own.

Around 1938, the complex would see construction start on even more towering Art Deco buildings. It was at this time that the 14 story Isolation building was built. It was referred to as "Al Blazi's Hall". At some point in it's history it stopped being used as an isolation ward and became the staff headquarters.

By 1941, construction on campus was completed. With two million square feet of building space, the medical center was unlike any other in the world. Though most of the complex was already completed by the mid 1930's, several more improvements were made to the buildings in this time. The last building built on campus in 1941 was a nurses residence named Murdoch Hall. With it's marble clad lobby, hardwood paneled office for Mayor Hague, and beautiful Art Deco movie theater, Murdoch Hall is one of the greatest buildings in Jersey City. In 1966, the building was also used by Hudson County Human Services. After the hospital closed, the building would continue to slowly rot away until 1995, when the Robert Redford movie "Quiz Show" was filmed in the tower. The film crew put a lot of time and effort into fixing up the building, as the rest of the campus continued to decline.

While on campus designing Murdoch, Christian Ziegler also designed a pair of 17 story towers that were added to the rear of the Maternity ward he originally created. Though sitting on only fourteen acres, the new medical center was the largest health care facility in the world.

As was the case with many hospitals in the late 1900's Jersey City Medical Center was overcrowded and underfunded. In 1979 the maternity ward on campus closed, and was converted into office space. However, this marked the beginning of the end for the campus. Less than a decade later, the Jersey City Medical Center went bankrupt and vacated the facility in 1988

Years of neglect left the campus as a complete eyesore for the city. Since the medical center could be seen for miles and miles, thousands of people looked at the decrepit complex day after day. The complex would serve as shelter for drug users and vagrants for nearly two decades, before a developer purchased the hospital with plans to renovate the whole complex.

Thankfully in 2007, work began on the largest restoration project in NJ history. Under the direction of Manhattan based reality group Metrowest, workers began renovating two of the staff buildings on the medical center property, built at the same time as the B.S. Pollak tower. By 2009 they were completely reborn as 315 condominium units. These buildings were renamed the "Capital" and "Rialto", after famous New York City Theaters. Nearly $135 million dollars went into renovation of the two towers.

However, things came crashing to a stop in 2010, midway through the renovation of the Murdoch building. The economic downturn left many of the already renovated units empty. The owner at the time, George Filopoulos, sold off most of the still-deteriorated hospital to a Connecticut based firm for $47 million.

Work began again almost immediately in the Murdoch building, which was the third to be renovated. It was dubbed the "Paramount" building, keeping with the trend of renaming the buildings after famous New York City theaters.

By 2015, work had mostly wrapped up on the last few blighted hospital buildings. Fairbank Hall, the Pollak hospital and the Margaret Hague Maternity ward were the last towers on campus to be renovated.

The Jersey City Medical Center is an amazing example of both Art Deco architecture and historic preservation. What could have ended with a serious of controlled implosions instead became one of the greatest examples of adaptive reuse in the history of the United States. As a result, it can now be used in future arguments towards saving our historic buildings. If this two million square foot complex of towers can be brought back after two decades of disuse, almost anything can.


  1. Do you know what the present Orpheum and mercury holdings were used for originally? Haven't been able to figure out their use despite reading up and researching on the internet. If you know please share! Thanks

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  4. Some info is incorrect because my sister was born at the Medical Center in 1991. My mother, grandmother and other family and friends had many hospital stays through the 90's. This space was not vacated until the new space opemed on Grand St. Where else would thousands pf people go? Christ Hospital is a very small facility and would never be able to handle that. Some fact checking is needed with your article.

  5. I was born in this facility in 1992 - some fact checking is indeed needed.