Centering Public Health in a Pandemic: A Q&A on the Chelsea District Health Center

By Lizzy Barringer posted 04-29-2021 12:57


The Chelsea District Health Center is a 2020 recipient of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards, the highest national recognition bestowed upon a preservation project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Award recipients represent the best of the best in historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and the re-imagining of historic buildings for the future.

Built in 1937 and located in Manhattan’s Chelsea Park, the Chelsea District Health Center is one of New Deal-era district health centers constructed to bring primary health care to under-served communities throughout the city. With New Deal funding secured by Mayor LaGuardia, the program expressed that basic health care for all was an important civic priority and solidified the city’s reputation as a global leader in urban public health.

After decades of use leading to disrepair, Stephen Yablon Architecture was commissioned by the City of New York to dramatically transformed the aging Art Deco Chelsea District Health Center into a state-of-the-art medical facility, which reopened for use in March 2018. “The importance of public health has been made abundantly clear in the last year and having high quality buildings dedicated to bringing health care to communities is critical to our nation’s health,” Stephen Yablon noted, and his firm’s design reinvented the clinic experience by creating a welcoming, reassuring, and destigmatizing space that is safe for all patients.

The following Q&A with Stephen Yablon, Principal at Stephen Yablon Architects, is one of three in a series of Q&A style blog posts with the 2020 Driehaus Award recipients. Learn more about the full slate of 2020 awardees here.

Why was this building important to preserve? Can you provide some background on the history of the site, including both cultural and architectural ?

In the 1930s,New York City brought comprehensive health care to local neighborhoods,  an innovative idea in urban public health. It’s signature initiative in this effort was  dividing  the city into 30 health districts. Each district was to have  its own health center that  included multiple health services as well as offices for social workers. While a total of 14  were eventually built, the Chelsea District Health Center was one of only 8 centers built under Mayor LaGuardia with New Deal funds. When all were complete  they constituted, as Leona Baumgartner, a physician and the first woman to serve as Commissioner of New York City's Department of Health said “the largest outpatient system in the world.”

Each building had a strong civic expression and was designed by a different architect, including one by McKim Mead and White. As a group, their quality clearly expressed that public health was an important municipal function, equal to police stations, courts, and libraries.

Exterior of a non-descript functional brick building that is a health center in New York City.
Exterior of the Chelsea District Health Center. | Credit: Michael Moran

Over the years, the Chelsea District Health Center was the site of the implementation of many health innovations including early distribution of the polio vaccine—there is a great photo of Elvis Pressley being given the vaccine with Baumgartner standing nearby—infant incubators, as well as mammography

Completed in 1937, Carl Grieshaber and Will Rice Amon designed the Chelsea District Health Center, the third of these centers, in an art-deco style. Eventually named the Leona Baumgartner Health Center, the center originally it had elegant black steel windows and a pergola on the roof which housed a children’s play area.  However, over time, the health center had many insensitive renovations—the pergola was removed, large HVAC units were installed on the roof, all the windows were replaced with unattractive insulating units with window AC units and security grilles, grim and defensive interior renovations, and cracked brick was replaced with poorly matching new brick. The restoration and gut renovation were an opportunity to restore a unique building and make it a useful tool for contemporary public health care needs.

Who makes up the community that the Chelsea District Health Center historically served, who does it serve today, and how does it serve that community?

The building is located in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. It was built to provide free primary care and health education to the primarily working class and local low income community, primarily consisting of many immigrants living in tenements and working in dangerous jobs on the nearby docks. It housed a wide variety of clinics including general health, chest (TB screening), dental, immunization, and venereal disease as well as spaces for teaching dental hygiene and infant care and offices for social workers.

Today, the neighborhood is demographically mixed as it includes large public housing projects, cooperative apartment buildings built by labor unions in the 50’s, very high-end housing and shops and is bordered by the largest concentration of art galleries in New York City.

Up until this most recent renovation by our office, it was one of the busiest public health facilities in the city. It still housed a wide variety of free clinics including general health, dental, chest, and immunization. It also housed an historic HIV/STD clinic which was heavily used by the local gay population during the 80’s AIDS crisis and remains important to that community.

Under Mayor Bloomberg’s Take Care program, the city committed itself to significantly reducing the incident of STD/HIV (Chelsea had one of the highest rates of syphilis in the city). The Department of Health decided to reutilize many of these run-down centers for expanded sexual health services. For the gut renovation of Chelsea Health Center, the building was repurposed as primarily a large STD/HIV clinic for testing, treatment, and counseling. It was originally supposed to house other clinics but during design those spaces were reprogrammed as administrative offices for the Department of Health.

A modern lobby inside the Chelsea District Health center has a circular reception area with stairs and rooms behind it.
Lobby area of the Chelsea District Health Center. | Credit: Michael Moran

What was the most challenging part of the rehabilitation of this building?

The most challenging part of the rehabilitation was devising a state-of-the-art air conditioning and ventilation system in a building built in 1939. Like most all buildings-built pre-air conditioning, the Center had low floor to floor heights since it did not have to accommodate air conditioning and ventilation ducts. All AC was through window units which were unsightly and did not provide adequate outside air for a medical facility.  

Accommodating new air distribution was very challenging in that we wanted to keep the ceilings as high as possible to create an uplifting and welcoming interior environment. The solution was to minimize running ducts over public spaces and circulation by carefully routing them over clinical spaces. Undulating ceilings in the public spaces accommodate duct crossings where needed. Having a new system allowed us to replace the existing unsightly windows with new highly efficient and more sympathetic insulated units, an important step in obtaining a LEED Gold rating.

The new systems required new VAC units be added to the already overcrowded roof which already gave the building an unfriendly street appearance. A new perforated Corian roof screen effectively hid all this equipment from the street, giving the building a less mechanistic appearance.

Interior of a waiting room at the Chelsea District Health Center. There are a few rows of chairs with people sitting on them and a woman standing in front of a large screen.
Waiting room at the Chelsea District Health Center. |  Credit: Michael Moran

Can you speak to some of the architectural and design elements that are unique to this rehabilitation?

The goal of the renovation was not only to restore, and gut renovate the building to accommodate a new program. It was also to use the architecture to reduce the stigma of using a public health clinic, especially one devoted to sexual health. Therefore, it was important to have a concept that simultaneously evoked that users were getting the highest level of medical care, that it was warm and welcoming, and that it was uniquely of its location. 

The building is uniquely located in a small public park. This became the inspiration for the interior design: a sleek medical park pavilion. The combination of sleek white walls with rounded corners, undulating wood ceilings and warm porcelain floors is meant to feel like the park is flowing through a modern health care facility. The perimeter walls are clad in pixilated tile pattern inspired by the bark on the park’s sycamore trees. This further ties the building to its site but also acts as an important device for interior orientation. The white from the interior peeks through at key points at the outside, at the entrance, the new glass slot in the rear and the white Corian roof screen, expressing that the building has a new usefulness for the community it serves.

What inspires you about this project?

The power of architecture to effect public health. By putting attention to a building type that is normally overlooked, free public health clinics, high quality architecture can reduce the stigma of these places and increase their usage, thereby effectively improving the health of the surrounding community. That is pretty gratifying for an architect.