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Battle for the Heights

Bloomingdale Asylum photograph from 1881

Photograph of the main Bloomingdale Asylum building in 1881, with its added wings and the adjacent Green Memorial Hall.

Title page of 1888 New York State Senate Hearing on Bloomingdale

Title page of published hearings from the New York State Senate hearings in early 1888 on a bill calling for removal of the tax exemption of the Bloomingdale and the cutting of streets through its grounds.

Dwight H. Olmstead

Photograph of Dwight H. Olmstead, lawyer and real estate investor who led the fight to remove the Bloomingdale Asylum from Morningside Heights as a nuisance, obstacle to progress, and depressor of real estate values. 

Eldbridge Gerry

Portrait of Ellbridge Gerry, member of the Board of Governors of New York Hospital, who played a key role in organizing support for the Asylum during the attempt of real estate interests to dislodge it, 1886-1889.

New York Herald on the Bloomingdale and  Eldbridge Gerry at the New York State Senate  Hearing

New York Herald article from February 10, 1888 describing, with great contempt, the lobbying effortsof "hot shot" Eldbridge Gerry on behalf of the Bloomingdale

The asylum had moved uptown to escape the city, but the growing city was steadily approaching.  Already in 1858, Dr. Brown reminded the directors that before too long, the Bloomingdale would find itself in an unhospitable environment.  He predicted that, with the city expanding about three blocks further north each year, the institution had about 20 years left before it found itself in trouble.[1]  In the late 1860s, the governors did in fact purchase a tract of land in White Plains, New York, and even began soliciting plans for a newly designed campus.  Because of the economic downturn in the 1870s, however, the project was abandoned.  In the meantime, the city moved closer.  Broadway was opened up in the 1860, bringing the city closer to the west side of the grounds.  In 1879, the 9th Avenue elevated train brought many more commuters nearby, although there was no stop at 110th street, which would have been the natural entrance point to the neighborhood.[2]  That, the lack of any rail transit on the Heights themselves, the steep cliff on the east, and the steep slope to the north, still kept the neighborhood relatively isolated, but that isolation was sure to end soon, as the work on Riverside and Morningside Parks progressed and as plans to turn Grant's temporary tomb (where he was buried in 1885) into a national monument gained momentum.

The impressive views from the Heights made the neighborhood a promising site for real estate development, and a number of speculators holding property in the area were eager to exploit this possiblity.  The prospect of many new residents in the area was attractive to local politicans as well, particularly if they were of the working and local middle class groups on which Tammany and some of the city's other Democratic factions relied.  For these interest groups, the presence of a house full of "lunatics" in the neighborhood seemed an insuperable obstacle, repressing property values by frightening away many buyers, and hindering movement and development by locking up the cross streets between 120th and 114th.  The negative image of the Bloomingdale growing out of the turmoil of the 1870s and the belief that the hospital there was largely a haven for spoiled or dissolute members of the upper crust played nicely into their hands.

Obviously, for the governors of the Bloomingdale, not yet ready to move elsewhere, any attempt to speed up their relocation was unacceptable.  David Rosner, in A Once Charitable Enterprise: Hospitals and Health Care in Brooklyn and New York, 1885-1915,  argues that their concerns ran even deeper, that from their perspective as the social elite, protecting this special space in Manhattan from the immigrant and working masses and preserving it for their own vision of the city was a an equally important concern.[3]

The battle was joined in 1886, when Assemblyman John McManus introduced two bills for passage, one taking away the asylum's tax exempt status, and another authorizing opening 115th, 116th, 117th 118th and 119th streets through the block between 10th Avenue and the Boulevard (Broadway), i.e., through the grounds of the Bloomingdale.  McManus, a Democratic assemblyman described as as a "Tammanyman" by the New York Times in 1882 (when he and two other Tammany assemblymen narrowly escaped death in the terrible train crash at Spuyten Duyvil that killed Senator William Wagner and eleven others) and as a "County Democrat" by the Reform Club's guide to the New York State Assembly in 1886, was a liquor dealer.[4] His saloon, located on 125th Street  near St. Nicholas Avenue, sounds as if it were not a very savory place, judging from the New York Times' account of the arrest there of a notorious criminal in the midst of a knife fight.[5] Certainly it was not the kind of place the governors, staff, or patients of the Bloomingdale were likely to frequent, and certainly not representative of the kind of people they might hope to see living on the Heights.

The real force behind the action, however, was a group of real estate investors, led by lawyer Dwight H. Olmstead and  former Democratic State Senator Francis M. Bixby.  They professed to be acting disinterestedly, but in fact both owned land on the Heights, and would stand to benefit enormously if it could be opened up for residential development.  Olmstead had been instrumental in promoting changes in the state's real estate laws and was actively working to take advantage of the rise in real estate prices as the city rumbled northward.  Just on year later, in 1887, as the Episcopal Church began looking at land between 116th and 119th on Morningside Drive as a site for its new cathedral, the "dreadful lawyer" Olmstead -- as Cathedral Committee member R. J. Nevin characterized him -- persuaded all the owners of land in that area to double their asking prices.[6]

This first attempt was fairly effectively rebuffed, but the real estate interests and local politicians bounced back again in 1888. This time the bill was introduced by McManus’s successor, John Connelly, whom the Reform Club guide identified as a member of the Tammany faction, and noted, somewhat disdainfully, was “a man of no known profession other than politics.” The goal of the bills was much the same — removal of the tax exempt status of the asylum and the opening up of 116th Street through the Bloomingdale property. This time Olmstead and Bixby came under the aegis of the “Morningside Park Association,” a shadowy organization that they and one or two colleagues in the real estate business had cobbled together at a meeting in downtown hotel.

The governors rallied their forces to meet the new challenge. Their chief standard bearer was Eldbridge Gerry, scion of a venerable old New York family (which gave us the term “gerrymander”), president of the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, lawyer, commodore of the New York Yacht Club, and Columbia University alumnus, who spent ample time exerting pressure and calling in favors. He intially seems to have had success in slowing its process, as the New York Herald, which, like most New York papers was decidedly in the anti-Bloomingdale camp this time noted ruefully that the bill was still in committee, having “slept there for five weeks under the powerful soporific administered by Commodore Elbridge T. Gerry and the Board of Governors of that wealthy and money-making institution for the opulent insane.”[7]

 Eventually consideration of the bill made its way to the Senate Committee on Taxation and Retrenchment, where the two sides had a chance to make their case in detail. The committee set out to consider a set of  questions posed by the Morningside Park Association (which it summarized in its report): "First.—'Whether the governors of the hospital deny to the State Board of Charities the right of visiting the asylum, and whether there is in fact any visitation.' ... Second.— 'Whether or not the said governors have by the act referred to, the right of perpetual succession regardless of the rights of the original corporators and their successors.' ... Third.— 'Whether or not said asylum is in fact conducted as a public charity, and whether or not free patients are admitted there, or have been for the past five years, and to what extent.' ... Fourth.— 'What property belongs to said society, in what manner it was acquired, its value, and to what extent it has been exempted from taxation, and whether such exemption is proper.' ... Fifth— 'Whether or not any of the streets originally laid out through the asylum grounds at Bloomingdale, which are now closed to the public, should be opened; and if so, what street or streets should be opened.' ... Sixth— 'Whether or not said lunatic asylum is detrimental to property in the neighborhood, or unsafe for persons residing, or who might reside there, and whether the said asylum should be permitted to continue in than that location.'"[8]

Of these, the most important issues were numbers 3 through 6.  The proponents of the bill denounced the asylum as a for-profit institution catering to the wealthy and hence not entitled to tax exemption.  They complained that the presence of a "madhouse" on the Heights frightened people away from this otherwise attractive neighborhood and therefore repressed property values and prevented this area from participating in the vigorous expansion of the West Side.  They also argued that the absence of any cross streets hindered traffic through the neighborhood, making it very difficult for people from Harlem to visit the new Riverside Park or Grant's tomb.  

The supporters of Bloomingdale argued that while the asylum did not run a deficit, it was part of a larger hospital corporation that did.  They noted that while there were almost no non-paying patients, the scale of fees was set to to accommodate a wide range of income levels, and that charitable activity did not have to be restricted to pure almsgiving.  Most importantly, they asserted that the patients at the Bloomingdale represented no danger to the community whatsoever, and that real estate values were low because of the lack of adequate transit to the area. Lastly, they argued that there was  little need for traffic across the Heights since the steep Morningside cliff led visitors to access it from uptown or downtown anyway, and that cutting a street through the grounds would be very disruptive to the program of the asylum, particularly since the street would run immediately adjacent to the newly constructed Macy Villa.

More significant were the socially motivated ephithets hurled on both sides.  The Bloomingdale governors asserted that they were not battling against the people of New York but a handful of greedy real estate speculators, while the supporters of the bills portrayed their opponents as a group of condescending, self-indulgent rich men.  In reponse to Gerry's characterization of the real estate men as "respectable pooh-bahs" and his quip that Connelly "represented a lot of vacant lots," the opposing camp described Gerry as a "hot shot for Bloomingdale," sneered at "the hollow pretensions of a so-called charitable asylum," and dismissed the asylums patients as "opulent insane."[9]

In the end, far more important than the public arguments was the backroom lobbying.  Gerry succeeded in getting a close victory for the Bloomingdale., with the three upstate senators supporting him and the two senators from the citing opposing him.   It was a Pyrrhic victory, however.  On the same day that the Taxation committee voted against bringing the bill to the assembly, the Committee on Cities recommended that a number of streets be opened.  While it did not explicitly mention the Bloomingdale it was clear that the committee had these streets in mind.  The chair had been one of the minority senators on the Taxation Committee who had voted for the bills and against the Bloomingdale.  And indeeed, one year later, a bill was passed calling for the opening up of 116th Street in 1892.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the Bloomingdale now laid down its arms.  At the end of May of 1888 the governors announced that the Bloomingdale would be moving to White Plains, provided it could get tax exempt status there.  Tax exemption proved nonetheless to be a tough fight in the Assembly.  Gerry's connections and lobbying were not enough, and he had to call on fellow-governor Cornelius Bliss, chairman of the State Republican Party, to help.  Together, they succeeded in getting the necessary support.  Just six years later, the Bloomingdale was gone, and 116th Street was open.

It seems puzzling, in light of the asylum's vigorous struggle in 1888, that it folded so quickly. A variety of explanations suggest themselves.  Perhaps preparations for the new facility in White Plains were not yet sufficiently advanced and the governors were unwilling to jump prematurely.  Perhaps the board members were holding out for as long as possible in hopes of achieving the best price.  Perhaps they sincerely believed that until mass transit came to the Heights, the neighborhood would remain sufficiently isolated.

Perhaps, as David Rosner suggests,the governors were holding out against real estate developers in the hopes that charitable and public institutions like their own would inherit the land. He points to the covenants that the Hospital made buyers of some of the lots it put on the market in advance of selling the grounds of the asylum sign, ensuring that they could not be used for the establishing of such things as railroad depots, blacksmith shops, breweries, tanneries, "nor any other noxious, dangerous or offensive trade, occupation or business, nor any houses commonly known as tenement houses."[10] Dolkart, however, argues that such concerns might simply have been tied to a desire to keep the value of the Hospital's remaining property on the Heights high.[11]

One last explanation for the seemingly paradoxical behavior of the  governors may be that there were strongly differing points of view among members of the board, with some less willing to let go of the Bloomingdale's old home than others.  Frederick Conkling talked about the Asylum Subcommittee having been a world unto itself. (New York State. Senate. "Supplemental," p. 62) It may be worth noting that the two major buildings erected on the campus in the final years were gifts from the estates of two governors who had long been active on that subcommittee.  So perhaps, when the larger board was confronted with the prospect of an endless struggle, other voices prevailed.

[1] Russell, p. 257. 

[2] Dolkart, p. 30.

[3] David Rosner, A Once Charitable Enterprise : Hospitals and Health Care in Brooklyn and New York, 1885-1915, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 180-181.

[4] "Meeting a Terrible Fate: Nine Persons Crushed and Burned in a Collision," New York Times Jan 14, 188, p. 1; City Reform Club. Record of Assemblymen and Senators from the City of New York in the Legislature..., New York, 1886, p. 44.

[5] "Who "Seddon's Mouse's" Friends Are."  New York Times, April 15, 1884, p.5.

[6] Dolkart, p.40.

[7] Rosner, p.173-177.

[8] New York (State). Senate. "Report of the Committee on Taxation and Retrenchment of the Senate of the State of New York, in the Matter of the Memorial of the Morningside Park Association, in Reference to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane," Documents of the Senate of the State of New York, One Hundred and Eleventh Session, 1888, v. 5, no. 61, p.3-13.

[9] Rosner, p.173-177.

[10] Ibid., p.181.

[11] Dolkart, p.448n3.