SYMS OPERATING PAVILION
The St. Luke's and Roosevelt hospital each had vital roles to play in the laying the foundations of modern surgery. While clinical innovators such as William Halsted who pioneered the use of local anesthesia while at Roosevelt and Hugh Fitzpatrick's, who performed New York's first successful open heart operation at St. Luke's are well known, less appreciated is the hospital's architectural heritage. This heritage is exemplified by the William J. Syms operating theater which not only holds the distinction of being the first modern operating room in America but commands a strength of design that has allowed it to dictate the shape of the buildings around it to the present day.
Charles McBurney was already a surgeon of national importance when William J. Syms, apparently quite satisfied with his care, sent him a check for $3000 for services that had been billed at $300. McBurney returned the check with a note explaining that he could not accept it. Some years later when Syms died he willed $350,000 to Roosevelt Hospital mandating that $250,000 be used to create a "surgical operating theater under the special care of Dr. Charles McBurney."
With the funding an operating theater was constructed that owed a great deal to an inventive German surgeon named Gustav Neuber. Neuber had published a book in 1886 describing a freestanding structure intended solely for surgery that he had recently constructed in Keil , Germany . The book described the new ideas he had incorporated into the operating theater such as making walls and floors from non-porous, cleanable materials, constructing shelves from glass and building operating spaces that had no corners where dust would collect. McBurney was able to put all of these features into his building as well. In addition his plans called for a centering a massive, north-facing skylight over the main operating theater in order to provide a steady, glare free light force.
While creating a functional space was a priority, W. Wheeler Smither, the chief architect, also paid close attention to creating a building with aesthetic appeal. Italian marble was used to wainscote the walls as well as provide the material for the massive operating room doors. Ground floor pivot windows, a surrounding garden and sophisticated ventilation system kept the space pleasant in all seasons. Meanwhile no expense was spared in creating a floor of marble-inlay terrazzo. In the end the building came together as a small gem of impeccable proportions which won high praise on its completion in the medical and popular press.
After thirty years of use the operating room was converted to a blood bank and finally abandoned in the 1970s. When the east end of the Roosevelt block was sold to developers in the 1980's the Syms theatres strengths were immediately recognized. First an extensive restoration project was carried out under the guidance of Walter Sedovich, a restoration archetect whose firm specializes in restoration projects. Sedovich states that the effort was "less a restoration than a preservation" Under his guidance structural elements of the building in danger of failing were replaced and details of the building hidden by decades of substandard maintenance were re-exposed. Salvage yards throughout the northeast were scoured until near perfect matches of the Syms' distinctive, silky smooth red brick were located and the façade was painstakingly reconstructed. Other major components of the building that were repaired or replaced were the central skylight, the original ground floor windows and the massive red oak front doors.
As the Syms was being restored two 49 story luxury apartment towers were being built beside it. The Syms operating theater played a key a prominent role in the design process of the new buildings. Architect Robert Crane believed that the huge buildings he was constructing should take their architectural cues from the comparatively miniscule old operating room. He states that "we made a conscious effort to use the same vocabulary in One Columbus that was already in place in the Syms building." The careful observer will notice how the masonry, granite horizontal bands, and curved brick window insets that distinguish the new tower are freely borrowed from the Syms. Even the placement of the new tower which is centered on the Syms operating theater, was determined by the smaller building.
In one important ways, however, the buildings part company. In deciding how to physically link the Syms and the new towers it was decided that the only things that should connect them would be a flashing system, there was to be no physical connection. This way, when it comes time to tear down the towers the Syms Operating Theater will remain unscathed, and a stucture of profound historical importance to American sugery will be present for future generations.