The Clinical Ampitheatre and Surgery as Spectacle

Demolition for the Parkway proceeded through the northwest quadrant of Center City like Sherman’s March through Georgia. Promising a civic and cultural boulevard, planners took no prisoners, even as they encountered the city’s best architectural gems.

Only one hiccup in the way of progress (as we learned last time) was the Medico-Chirurgical Hospital.  But this, too, eventually took the fall. The hospital’s clinical ampitheatre, just west enough on Cherry Street to survive a couple of decades longer, perpetuated the original, old-school Philadelphia sin of perpendicularity. In the 20th century, at least in this quadrant of Penn’s original grid, planners switched staid for sparkle. Perpendicularity had given way to diagonality.

Anything else, everything else, would be sacrificed at the altar of the City Beautiful.

Since its founding in 1881, the Medico-Chirurgical College and Hospital periodically augmented its Cherry Street campus with new buildings, eventually filling up the entire block between 17th and 18th. Each would be a permanent addition (or so they thought) to the city’s venerable medical community, none more so than the building by Frank Miles Day & Brother, opened on October 2, 1897.

Clinical Ampitheatre of the Medico-Chirurgical Hospital. 17th and Cherry Streets., Philadelphia, PA. Frank Miles Day & Bro. Architects, Architectural Record ,1904. (Google Books)

Dr. William L. Rodman, the newly elected professor to the chair of the principles of Surgery and Clinical Surgery (and later president of the American Medical Association) welcomed all to admire this “new and commodious clinical amphitheatre,” a state-of-the art facility, “one of the most excellent, as well as the largest clinical amphitheatres … yet been erected either in the United States or Europe.”

Clinical Amphitheater, Medical-Chiruguical Hospital, Philadelphia. (Wikimedia.org)

“The amphitheatre is the most noteworthy feature of the building,” claimed the Inquirer. “The form of seating in rows … extending entirely around the central space and rising from it, tier on tier,” had been a classic form going back centuries, and locally to Pennsylvania Hospital’s of 1804. The operating pit enabled continuation of the medical tradition where  the surgeon/professor/performer emulated great predecessors like Thomas Dent Mütter, Samuel Gross and David Hayes Agnew, who, according to Rebecca Rego Barry, would enter “the arena of the operating theater as a matador strides into the ring” receiving applause from “rows of ogling observers.”

Surgery as spectacle.

The refined Renaissance style of the building’s exterior telegraphed the anticipated experience within. “A high base of Hummelstown brown stone carries the superstructure, which is of Pompeiian bricks and terra cotta (fabricated by Philadelphia’s Conkling-Armstrong Terra Cotta Co.). The chief features of the front are three large arched windows, below which are marble tablets bearing the names of epoch-making physicians and surgeons, beginning with Hippocrates, Galen and Celsus and extending to Pasteur, Koch and Lister. The names of Sims, Agnew, Goodell, Pancoast, Gross and other American contributors to medical science are found upon that list.”

Parkway from Bell Telephone Building, February 7, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

“It is very interesting to watch an architect ‘find himself,’” observed critic Ralph Adams Cram. And in the case of Frank Miles Day & Brother “the process is perfectly logical [and] entirely continuous.” The Days extended the ampitheatre‘s performance quality to the street, emphasizing “very evident and equally dominant passion for fine line, graceful ornament and delicate colors, consciousness of composition, mass and the co-ordination of parts…”

Cram called the clinical amphitheatre as one of the Days’ “more notable works.” Others are extant: the French Renaissance Crozer Building on the 1400 block of Chestnut Street and the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania (designed in collaboration with Cope and Stewardson and Wilson Eyre). Neither Horticultural Hall or the Art Club, both on Broad Street, survive. The first gave way to what is now the Merriam Theater; the second lost an existential battle with a parking garage.

Buildings on [Cherry] Street being demolished, August 1939. Paul Vanderbilt, photographer. (Yale University)

Tha Plaza, 18th and the Parkway, 1968 (PhillyHistory.org)

The Days’ clinical amphitheatre wasn’t exactly in the Parkway’s path—it intersected it at an odd angle—which might have facilitated survival for a few more decades. After the First World War, as part of the Graduate School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, the amphitheatre was “completely renovated, redecorated and refurbished,” and reopened in 1919, “the principle operating room (having been)  completely equipped (as) one of the finest in the world.”

Not for long. In August 1939, as photographer Paul Vanderbilt traversed the city in search of its rougher edges, he captured the last of the amphitheatre’s front wall, then, finally, in the process of demolition.

Right angles had effectively been expunged from the intersection of 18th and Cherry Streets. Perhaps never to be seen again.

[Additional Sources: “Clinic Ampitheatre: The New Building oat the Disposal of Medico-Chi,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 3, 1897; Warren Powers Laird, “Frank Miles Day: An Appreciation,” The American Architect, Vol. 114, issue 2219, (July 3, 1918); “Medico-Chirurgical Hospital To Reopen,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 15, 1919.]

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