When Dr. Charles McBurney, an eminent 19th-century surgeon, was given the opportunity to create the ideal operating room, he insisted that there be lots of light and air. That’s not a bad arrangement for precocious schoolchildren, either.
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
McBurney’s legacy, the landmark William J. Syms Operating Theater of Roosevelt Hospital, at Ninth Avenue and 59th Street, is to reopen this fall as the new home of the four-year-old Speyer Legacy School, now at 15 West 86th Street.
The Syms pavilion hasn’t seen surgery since 1941 and is no longer connected with the hospital. Most recently, the building was used as office space. Connie Williams Coulianos, the administrative head of school, said the 30-foot-high volume struck her as symbolizing the school’s belief that there should be no academic ceilings. “It’s so open,” she said, “and there’s so much light.”
The light comes from a conical rooftop dome that was entirely clad in glass when the operating theater opened in 1892. It is still luminous, even though the upper half was sheathed in copper in 1953, which is also when the amphitheater was gutted, according to the designation report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (available as a PDF).
The architects of the renovation are Davis Brody Bond of Manhattan. “As soon as we saw Syms, we said, ‘Whoa, what a great front door,’” Christopher K. Grabé, a partner in the firm, recalled. “This will be the village square for the rest of the school. You can envision that this will be the place where kids will gather.” Classrooms will occupy former commercial space in the base of an abutting apartment tower to which the former operating theater is connected.
The private Speyer Legacy School was founded in 2009 by parents including Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber, the director of the Center for Suicide Risk Assessment at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. It is intended for “advanced learners,” by which the school says it means curious, relentless, passionate, probing, imaginative, unconventional and “perhaps high maintenance.” The annual tuition is $34,000 for kindergarten through fifth grade, and $38,000 for sixth through eighth grades. Dr. Gerstenhaber said more than half the students’ families received financial aid.
Dr. Gerstenhaber estimated that it would cost $11.5 million to transform the former operating theater and adjacent space, about 85,000 square feet over all, into a school. She said a capital campaign had begun. Work is to be finished in time for the new school year next fall, when the enrollment will grow to 200 students, from 140.
The few surviving original architectural features will be preserved for their educational value. “We’re going to treat it as an archaeological find, in effect,” Mr. Grabé said. “As much as we can uncover, we’re going to leave there.”
Students may get their first taste of Latin, for instance, when they see the painted inscription, “Mortui vivos docent,” from the period beginning in 1942 when Syms was the hospital mortuary. It means, “Let the dead teach the living.”
Even the old floor tiles tell a story. “The great bane of modern surgery is the presence of insidious disease germs or bacteria lurking in the surroundings of operating rooms,” The New York Times said in 1890. “They thrive wherever there is dust, and where there is anything capable of holding dust or absorbing fluids.” By contrast, The Times said, the mosaic floors and marble walls of the Syms operating theater were “absolutely impervious” and thus kept pathogens at bay.
Syms was a partner in Blunt & Syms, a large gun maker and dealer. He bequeathed $350,000 to Roosevelt Hospital for the construction of an operating theater in which surgeons’ work could be observed closely by students. He directed that McBurney superintend its design and operation. William Wheeler Smith was the architect with whom McBurney worked.
In its utilitarianism, the Syms Operating Theater presented a contrast to the romantic jumble of Victorian Gothic pavilions that made up the rest of Roosevelt’s campus. “The building represented the attempt in the 19th century to reconcile architecture with technological advances,” the landmarks commission said when designating the exterior in 1989. It was at the time “the most advanced operating theater in the world,” the designation stated.
Despite this triumph, McBurney did not seem to have died a happy man. In 1901, he was among the doctors summoned to Buffalo to treat President William McKinley, who had been shot in the chest and abdomen by an assassin. Four days after the shooting, the president appeared to be recovering strongly. “We have locked door after door against the grim monster,” McBurney told reporters. “I am satisfied. I am going to Niagara Falls today to see the sights.”
Five days later, the patient died. And according to McBurney’s obituary in The New York Times on Nov. 8, 1913, “His friends observed a marked change in his manner after President McKinley’s death, and from that time on he steadily declined in health.” Sounds like an American history class right there.