Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Gross Hospital

When Thomas Jefferson Hospital announced last week that it would ship off one of Philadelphia's great civic heirlooms, The Gross Clinic, to - of all places - Arkansas, unless the city came up with $68 million, it wasn't the first time the institution had held its hometown for ransom. Jefferson has been expertly extracting favors from the city for years.

Prior to the latest shake down over Thomas Eakins' landmark painting of surgeon Dr. Samuel David Gross - shown coolly and methodically demonstrating a difficult bone operation to his medical students - Jefferson applied considerable pressure on city officials to obtain a package of zoning variances that allowed an otherwise prohibited mega-garage on the 900 block of Chestnut Street (left). At the time, Jefferson and its development partner, Lupert Adler, assured credulous city officials that the garage would do wonders for Center City's vitality, along with solving the hospital's parking problems. They promised that the design, by BLT Architects, would
magically restore the retail continuity on this blighted section of Chestnut Street - which Jefferson itself had helped destroy with developments such as the Gibson Building. (right) Rather than bother renting the ground-floor shops in the block-long medical building, Jefferson had converted those spaces to offices and papered over the windows, leaving the block on life supports. Even as other Chestnut Street blocks began to regain the thrum of activity in the last five years, the Gibson block, between 10th and 11th, has remained a black hole of nothingness.
All that was supposed to change once Jefferson's garage opened, according to an elaborate plan prepared by Wallace Roberts & Todd for the hospital. But it's been half a year since motorists began filling its decks and all six retail lots in the garage remain vacant. The windows are covered with dust - and a forlorn For Rent sign. Jefferson doesn't appear to be expending much effort to make good on its promise to lease the Gibson Building's spaces to active users, either. The hospital did remove one of the floor-to-ceiling posters of healthy, smiling people, but replaced it with a floor-to-ceiling poster for Commerce Bank, to advertise a new cash machine in the lobby. I wonder how long it will be before more smiling faces cover the shop windows in the ground floor of the garage?

Philadelphia isn't the only place that Jefferson has held hostage. In 2004, Bryn Mawr Hospital, which is part of the Jefferson health system, informed an entire neighborhood adjacent to its campus that it intended to acquire all the homes so it could build the next "Bethesda" - a complex of high-rise offices, parking garages and condos. Any neighbor who refused to sell their early 20th-Century, Craftsman-style home to Bryn Mawr Hospital would just have to get used to living cheek-to-jowl with garages and office buildings. Some residents tried fighting the hostile take-over of their neighborhood, but ultimately virtually everyone in the modest neighborhood - one of Bryn Mawr's few affordable districts - succumbed to the hospital's pressure tactic.

Residents of Washington Square West know all too well what it's like to live next door to a territorially ambitious and imperious institution. Over the years, Jefferson has gobbled up a slew of old commercial buildings on Chestnut, Walnut and Locust Streets. More often than not, it has replaced the varied, textured mix of small scale buildings with hulking fortresses like this student center by Kling on Locust Street. (right) Unlike other buildings that take part in civic life by facing out towards the street and offering window glimpses on their inner workings, the hospital's architecture tends to shun the city. Jefferson is in the midst of putting up yet another inward looking building across the street. It's part of a shamefully sketchy master plan that is intended to guide the hospital's development. The $400 million expansion plan is the supposed basis for selling off Eakin's 1875 masterpiece.

Eakins didn't decide to paint Dr. Gross removing a diseased thigh bone from a young patient simply because he liked the blood and gore. Gross' rational, scientific approach to medicine, which was radically altering the profession in the late 19th Century, meshed perfectly with Eakins' approach to art. He, too, sought a rational, scientific approach to painting human and animal forms. Together with the photographer Edweard Muybridge, Eakins produced an historic series of photographs showing exactly how people and animals moved through space. Eakins transferred that knowledge to painting, to make his figures more accurate. He was famously dismissed from his teaching post at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts because he insisted on having all his students - both women and men - draw from life, including nudes of the opposite sex. No wonder Eakins found intellectual kinship with Gross' bold, systematic instruction. That's why he includes a self-portrait of himself, pencil and sketchpad in hand, among the medical students watching Gross from the gallery. The painting is so important to Philadelphia because it celebrates the city as a place of technological and intellectual innovation.

That kind of innovation can't take place in fortified ivory towers cut off from the surrounding world. Jefferson's campus is interwoven with a city, a place and a history. For better or worse, Jefferson is part of Philadelphia and Philadelphia is part of Jefferson. Mayor Street deserves kudos for moving quickly to designate the Gross Clinic as an historic object , to keep Jefferson from amputating the painting from the body of Philadelphia. Big institutions like Jefferson, Penn and Temple, will always have uneasy relations with their urban surroundings. Intellectually, they know they need to protect the environment that nurtures them. Yet, it's their nature to think first of their own growth and glory. It will take leadership from both inside the institution and out to understand that neither can survive without the other.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

From a lawyer in Knoxville, TN to whom this article was sent:

"Well written.
Having owned several parcels of property in the Fort Sanders area adjacent to the University of TN, I can testify to what bad neighbors institutions of higher learning can be. UT has been the single most destructive force to architecture in the city IMHO."

11:11 AM  
Anonymous sharon s. said...

Mayor Street's attempt to designate Gross Clinic is a case of too little, too late. It's also another example of the City's failure to learn from past mistakes. After Dream Garden, the Historical Commission might have undertaken an inventory of objects suitable for designation (with Gross Clinic an obvious choice for inclusion). At this stage, there isn't time to complete the necessary procedural steps prior to expiration of the 45 day "matching offer" period (a circumstance no doubt anticipated by Jefferson's attorneys). The chances of any designation withstanding legal challenge are, as a result, much weaker.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous mike pro said...

as a Wash West resident i'm all too familair with Jefferson's cold shoulder to the neighborhood. I am looking forward, though, to the new plaza being built along with the new clinical care building at Locust and 10th -11th. That with the new Western Union Building condos should make for some interesting new site lines and public spaces. At least i hope the new plaza will be "public space".

i wonder how the new space will interact with the hulking, brutal, prison-like Alumni Hall? I mean does anyone ever think of anything other than a prison with those skinny windows and huge concrete pillars around the base?

it's not like Wash West is a dangerous place (these days), so why the inward pose of the school?

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inga, I've come on here before and critized your opinions. Not this time. You are 100% right about TJU and their backwards, terrible ways. I do think their new parking garage is excellent...for a garage. Its that cold shoulder they put on retail I find very bothersome.

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Vince Dean said...


5:02 PM  
Anonymous sharon s. said...

An editorial in today's Inquirer urges the City to complete an inventory of the region's "irreplaceable cultural assets" to avoid the need for future 11th hour rescue attempts like the one underway for The Gross Clinic. A smart recommendation that the City should heed. And while it's at it, perhaps it could amend the historic preservation ordinance to include "interiors" (which hasn't been done despite the court rulings in the Boyd Theater case).

9:24 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home