Real Estate

How Black Nurses Were Recruited to Staten Island to Fight a Deadly Disease

Virginia Allen, a poised 92-year-old with an elegant sweep of white hair and a nagging case of sciatica, remembers the first time she set foot on the sprawling green campus of Sea View Hospital three-quarters of a century ago.

“I felt in awe of it,” she said of the complex, more than two dozen buildings on an elevated site in the Todt Hill section of Staten Island. “It was a huge place.”

Virginia Allen in her apartment at Park Lane at Sea View, a private retirement home. Originally the Sea View Hospital nurses’ residence, the building was renovated in 2009, and Ms. Allen now makes her home on the same floor of the same building where she lived in the late 1940s.Credit…Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times

The year was 1947, and Ms. Allen was an unworldly 16-year-old from Detroit who had come to be trained as a pediatric nurse’s aide at Sea View, which had opened in 1913 to wage war on tuberculosis. Known as the “white plague,” the highly contagious disease killed 5.6 million people in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, when there was no direct cure.

For an inexperienced young Black woman who had never been anywhere but “at home and at school,” as she put it, the hospital’s wards teemed with both danger and opportunity, offering her a free education and a professional nursing career.

“She arrived at a pivotal moment in time,” said Maria Smilios, whose gripping book, “The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis,” will be published on Sept. 19. “It’s the golden age of antibiotics, it’s post-World War Two, the city is alive and thrumming with economic activity, but there’s a huge nurse shortage. So she becomes one of hundreds recruited to fill the ranks.”

Nurses at Sea View, on the front lines of the 20th-century battle against tuberculosis. After white nurses began quitting in 1929, the hospital recruited hundreds of Black nurses from the Jim Crow South to fill the void.Credit…From left: Bernice Alleyne; James Williams; The Gillespie family

At Sea View, virtually the entire nursing staff was Black. In the hospital’s early decades, the nurses had been predominantly white, but in 1929, they began quitting to work at jobs that wouldn’t kill them. To fill the void, Sea View recruited Black nurses from the Jim Crow south, enticing them with offers of education, a career and a living wage. At the time, Sea View was one of only four of the more than two-dozen municipal hospitals in New York that did not discriminate against Black nurses; the rest either refused to hire them or had quotas limiting the number of Black nurses they employed.

Many of the women working at Sea View, including Ms. Allen, lived in the nurses’ residence, a gracious, Spanish Mission-inflected dormitory with a red terra-cotta-tiled roof topped by gabled attic dormers. In 1952, some of the nurses facilitated the trials at Sea View that refined the use of Isoniazid drugs, the first successful direct treatment of tuberculosis. Their crucial frontline work included transporting patients to bronchoscopies, collecting their sputum, monitoring their vital statistics and completing detailed daily reports for the doctors.

Nurse Blanche Newton gives Alfred Maddox an Isoniazid medication, the first successful direct treatment of tuberculosis, at Sea View in 1952. The medication was hailed as a “wonder drug.”Credit…Carl T. Gossett Jr./The New York Times

As Sea View’s patient rolls shrunk, the hospital’s focus shifted to geriatric care in the early 1960s, and over time many of its buildings were vacated and left vulnerable to the elements and trespassing urban explorers. But a few of the historic buildings have been renovated for new uses. One is the nurses’ residence, which is now a private retirement home called Park Lane at Sea View. Astonishingly, after the home’s grand opening in 2009, Ms. Allen came full circle, moving back into the former dormitory where she lived more than 70 years ago.

The former Sea View Hospital nurses’ residence, left, where Virginia Allen lived in the 1940s and now lives again, sits cheek by jowl with the ruin of a patients’ pavilion that is gradually being swallowed up by forest.Credit…Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times

Her return was an accidental homecoming, she said. An administrator invited her to the ribbon-cutting for the renovated facility, and after taking a tour she decided she liked the place enough to move in.

Today she makes her home on the same floor of the same building where she resided in the late 1940s and 1950s, surrounded by the hulking, vine-cloaked ruins of health care buildings where she and her colleagues once worked. Though the city designated the structures as part of a historic district in 1985, many have been left to decay.

“I feel privileged to have come back here to live where I first started my career,” she said not long ago, sitting in her comfortable fourth-floor apartment. “The buildings that have gone to the dogs are still beautiful, and I feel there is still some history of what Sea View was that is remaining here.”

The former Sea View Hospital surgical pavilion, left, and the ruins of an open-air cottage for female tuberculosis patients. The surgical building is occupied by Volunteer Heart, a volunteer ambulance service.Credit…Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times
Credit…Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times

For her, these crumbling structures are crowded with ghosts — of indigent children and fellow nurses lost to disease or time.

Ms. Allen, who represented nurses and social workers for a labor union in the 1960s and returned to patient care on Staten Island in the 1980s, now volunteers at the Staten Island Ballet, which occupies Sea View’s former pathology lab. But as she goes about her day, the past has a way of intruding on the present.

Time and people “tried to erase the story of the nurses who worked here who gave so much of their time and energy,” she said. “I’m fortunate to still be here. Some caught tuberculosis and died, and some recovered. It’s just like the health care workers who worked during Covid.”

Sea View was designed by the architect Raymond F. Almirall to help achieve the Apollo Program-like goal of Dr. Hermann Biggs, the general medical officer for the city’s Health Department, “to completely wipe out pulmonary tuberculosis in a single generation.” Mr. Almirall’s innovative plan featured eight rectangular, open-air patients’ pavilions forming a half-moon that radiated from a stately administration building adorned with multicolored terra cotta.

An aerial view of Sea View, which opened in 1913. The hospital’s innovative plan featured eight rectangular patients’ pavilions, each with open-air porches and sun rooms, forming a half-moon that radiated from the administration building.Credit…NYC Municipal Archives

The gold standard of tuberculosis care at the time was the “rest cure,” essentially an abundance of air and sunshine. Mr. Almirall’s pavilions — with their polygonal solariums and open-air porches flanking every floor — created a suitably salubrious environment. “A consistent effort has been made to express hospital purpose,” he wrote in The Modern Hospital in 1914, “by simplicity, and by light, air, abundant veranda space and cheerfulness.”

The grand facade of the nurses’ dormitory evoked, as Ms. Smilios wrote in “The Black Angels,” “places that barred Black women from entering, except through the back door — plantation estates and stately mansions.”

But to Ms. Allen in the late 1940s, it was home. Most of the nurses there were friends of her Aunt Edna Sutton Ballard, a surgical nurse who had come to Sea View in the early 1930s — and had inspired her niece to apply to work at the hospital — and they took Ms. Allen under their wings. Like the other residents, Ms. Allen had a tiny room with a door of quarter-sawn oak, a bed, a chest, a chair and a small sink.

The former Sea View administration building, adorned with polychromatic terra-cotta ornament crafted in Delft, Holland. The building is being renovated for use as a women’s residential substance abuse treatment center by Camelot of Staten Island.Credit…Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times
Credit…Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times

A favorite spot was the “rumpus room,” a place of camaraderie with mahogany bookcases and a fireplace decorated with Delft tiles.

“It was a lot of fun because we had a grand piano there,” Ms. Allen recalled, “and many of the nurses played, so we’d sing and talk and play cards.”

The rumpus room was also where nurses “would gather together to decide how they might move forward in terms of equality,” said Ms. Smilios, whose book describes a notable civil rights struggle at the dormitory.

In 1937, when the residence reopened after an expansion, nurses discovered signs in the new dining hall bearing the words “Reserved for Whites.” They went straight to The New York Amsterdam News, an influentialBlack newspaper, which ran a story under the headline “Nurses Stage Walkout for Discrimination.”

With racial tensions still simmering two years after a riot in Harlem, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia hopped a ferry for Staten Island. Following a meeting with hospital administrators, he and the officials announced that “such segregation would not be tolerated.” The discriminatory signs were removed.

Ms. Allen’s memories, however, are overwhelmingly positive. She loved donning her blue nurse’s aide uniform, with white stockings and shoes, and caring for the babies and children at the pediatric hospital, which today is a forbidding wreck hemmed in by forest.

She was the youngest caregiver there, she said. “It was the innocent taking care of the innocent.”

Working with her two supervising nurses, one African American and one German-Irish, felt like being part of a team, she said.

Nonetheless, she added, white parents would occasionally “show racial discrimination between their children and the workers,” wanting her to “drop what you were doing and care for their child” — as if “their child was more important than the child you were taking care of.”

Ms. Allen did not succumb. “My personality is such,” she said, “that I would tell them respectfully that I’d be right with them when I was done doing what I was doing.”

After several years, Ms. Allen became a nurse by graduating from a city program, and before returning to the pediatric hospital in her freshly earned nurse’s whites and cape, she worked briefly in Sea View’s adult wards.

The most striking ornamental aspect of these pavilions was the six-foot-high terra-cotta frieze running around each building beneath its eaves. Here, against a backdrop of golden tiles, could be found polychrome images of doctors, seashells, garlands, red crosses and white nurses. Although New York and New Jersey had terra-cotta companies capable of fine work, like the ornament on the Woolworth Building, Mr. Almirall commissioned Sea View’s ceramics from the De Porceleyne Fles company in Delft, Holland. The terra-cotta images were created using the “sectile” technique introduced at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. This method allowed for a curvilinear tile shape that followed the contours of the caregivers and children depicted in the images, said Christine Jetten, a Dutch ceramicist who has done restoration work for the manufacturer of the Sea View ornaments.

In 1998, the Friends of Terra Cotta initiated a campaign urging the city landmarks commission to promote the preservation of these rare tiles. But the effort, though backed by more than 30 preservation groups and individuals, failed. (Three mural sections were removed by city workers and are now displayed in the nursing-care facility that replaced four of the pavilions in 1973.)

In June, New York City Health + Hospitals agreed to allow the New York City Fire Department to occupy the old Sea View staff house for 40 years. The department will invest $20 million to renovate the building into classroom training space for employees.

A city landmarks commission spokeswoman said that “the agency cares deeply about the adaptive reuse and preservation of the buildings” in the historic district that includes Sea View, “and works in partnership with other city agencies in an advisory manner to further those goals.”

In 2016, the city announced that it would solicit proposals for a “wellness community” that could include the restoration of the remaining four adult pavilions. Seven years on, a spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation said that the hospital was still seeking “alignment between multiple stakeholders on a way forward.” In the meantime, the moldering wards are being swallowed up by forest.

One of these wrecked pavilions looms eerily behind the parking lot of Ms. Allen’s home, and each day the retired nurse and the historic landmark grow older together.

Ms. Allen turned 92 on Aug. 15, and to Debbie-Ann Paige, a co-president of the Staten Island Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the best way to celebrate the nonagenarian caregiver and her colleagues is not to mythologize them as angels but rather to see them as human beings who overcame daunting challenges.

“Staten Island has had a difficult time in terms of race from its inception, and not only were these women and women of color, they were frightening to the surrounding community because they were perceived as people of color bringing the contagion with them,” Ms. Paige said.

Many commuted to work and had to endure people moving away from them on public transportation, she added, so “for me the idea that they endured and persevered is much more worth honoring than just this idea of an angel who gives you a kiss and you’re cured.”

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