Thursday, January 9, 2014

What To Do With Montgomery Hospital?

As a building, I've taken Montgomery Hospital for granted most of my life. It's in my general neighborhood. Between that and Sacred Heart, I got used to the sounds of sirens going up and down my street at all hours of the day.

My first experience visiting a patient there was when my brother had both his tonsils and appendix removed in the same year. I was five. The first time I walked in on my own to visit someone was 7th grade when my best friend had part of a kidney removed. Starting in 1987, for 21 years, my parents took turns being admitted at least once a year. If you add up the hours spent with them in the emergency room, it would probably equal a full week. One time they were even admitted to the ER, then to the hospital, on the same day. Then there was the day Dad went into surgery for a spinal procedure while Mom was upstairs being committed to the hospice wing. My mom died there. Much of the tragedy in my life is associated with that hospital.

But good things happened there, too. My brothers and I, many of my cousins, and all my high school friends were born there, along with thousands of other babies. Most of the people I ever visited there got well and came home. The cafeteria had really good, cheap, soft-serve ice cream. And whenever one or the other of my parents was put into a west-facing room on the top floor, we saw some of the best sunsets from the window. Great view of the West End. You can see Limerick's cooling towers from up there. I even chose Montgomery's ER and surgical prep areas to use as settings in my novel FEAR ITSELF.

Montgomery Hospital opened in 1932, right at the height of the Depression, before FDR's WPA programs, when building project just weren't happening anywhere in the U.S. It's a miracle the hospital opened at all, but it helped put residents to work when work was desperately needed. It replaced Charity Hospital at the corner of Powell and Basin, which looked more like a Victorian mansion. The new building was designed in the Art Deco style, looking ultra modern and cutting-edge at the time. It's a beautiful example of the style, with its vertical lines of blond and dark blond bricks, with decorative brick patterns around the top floor. The original building was shaped like an H, though so many additions have been added over the years, it's hard to envision how it must have looked in 1932.

I've heard that Einstein (who still owns the property) and a developer have plans to level everything on the block and build low-rise "senior housing." I've been assured by an architect that the original hospital building is sound, so I have to wonder, why knock it down when it would be a PERFECT building for senior housing. Anything they could build couldn't possibly be better quality or better looking construction. Given Norristown's track record with developers lately, the construction would likely be cheap and look it.

But beyond that, what would their low-rise housing include? I've performed concerts and other programs at about a dozen different retirement homes and senior communities around the Delaware Valley. The successful ones have lots of community gathering areas, because being a senior living away from family can be extremely lonely. They have a large community room or auditorium or both. They have laundry rooms. Some have a computer room, a library, a games room, a gym, a snack room. They have access to the kinds of shops seniors need, usually within walking distance. Residents at Rittenhouse regularly walk to Rite-Aid, Plymouth Produce, Family Dollar, National Penn Bank, Dunkin' Donuts, etc. Le Cons Pharmacy is across the street from Montgomery Hospital on Powell, and the medical building, assuming the doctors who are there stay and more move back in. There's a parking garage for visitors and staff. But what else is there?

If Montgomery Hospital were retro-fitted for senior housing, the lobby could become a little mall for retail shops and a cafe, for the convenience of the seniors but also open to the public. The rest of the bottom floor could be used for the above kinds of amenities plus a large community room and dining hall.  And the residents on the top floors would get those great views of town.

I wouldn't object to knocking some of the additions to provide more park-like green space around the building where seniors or the public could walk or sit, and to showcase more of the original building from the outside. But level everything? We've had too much of our precious historical architecture destroyed already. Rittenhouse was retro-fitted for senior housing--the apartments are gorgeous and the building does the neighborhood proud. Montgomery could work the same way. Let's keep the 1932 Art Deco building and bring it back to its former glory.

1 comment:

  1. According to architect Doug Seiler, Montgomery Hospital dates to 1934, not 1932. It would make more sense, given funding at the time.