It has been eight years since residents of Rye and neighboring communities were shocked by the news that United Hospital had filed for bankruptcy and was officially closing its doors on December 31, 2004.
By Paul Hicks
It has been eight years since residents of Rye and neighboring communities were shocked by the news that United Hospital had filed for bankruptcy and was officially closing its doors on December 31, 2004. An article in The New York Times at the time captured the widespread feeling in its headline: “Community Reels Over Plan to Close Its Only Hospital.”
United’s history dates back to 1889 when a group of 14 women formed the Ladies Hospital Association to “serve humanity, save lives and relieve suffering.” From the proceeds of bake sales and “fetes” it was able to open a two-bed facility that year in rented rooms on the second floor of Scott’s Dry Goods Store in Port Chester.
By the turn of the century, the small hospital had grown to four beds plus living quarters for a nurse. Local businesses and residents donated money plus supplies and food. When a bottling company provided a horse to draw the ambulance, the Association began serving the needs of Harrison and Rye residents as well as those in Port Chester.
The Association’s name was changed in 1911 to the United Hospital of Port Chester, Rye and Harrison. By that time, it had received sufficient financial support to purchase a 10-acre estate (later increased to 15 acres) and build a 50-bed hospital on the Post Road in Port Chester. Thereafter, through continuous improvements to its facilities, United provided health care for nearly 100 years to the area from Port Chester to Mamaroneck.
Expansion of the hospital occurred in stages as the board and administrators tried to keep pace with increasing demand without falling victim to over-capacity. In 1921, an article in the Modern Hospital journal described the addition of two large wings to the original building. A separate building housed nurses and students at the hospital’s nursing school (which later closed but reopened in 1962).
As early as 1936 the hospital operated at only 63 percent of capacity, but the area’s population growth after World War II warranted a $1 million expansion of the facility in 1951, the first since 1928. A four-story memorial pavilion was added to the hospital, and the existing buildings were remodeled to provide for a new obstetrical department as well as four new operating rooms.
The improvements increased the hospital’s 200-bed capacity by one-third, but only 11 years later plans were announced for a further expansion to accommodate 340 adults and children as well as 35 newborn babies. The $4.2 million project was anchored by a six-story main building that included new emergency and x-ray departments.
Along with the major building improvements in the 1960s, the hospital added a department for treating short-term psychiatric patients as well as facilities for those in need of extended care and intensive care. At each stage of United’s expansion and modernization it received important financial support from many local benefactors.
The first major gift was a bequest of $50,000 to the hospital in 1913 under the will of William Macy (equal to roughly $1.1 million today). In addition to a number of large individual donations, millions of dollars were raised over the years through the Twig organization. Founded in 1911 initially as a sewing circle, it involved many women in Rye in supporting the hospital, both through fundraising and volunteer services.
By the 1960s, there were 37 Twig groups devoted to United Hospital with 650 members drawn from Rye, Harrison, Port Chester, and Mamaroneck
Among the many successful Twig fundraising projects were the Antique, Nearly New, Thrift, and Hospital Gift shops, as well as the Holiday Fair, musical reviews called “the Follies,” Fashion Shows, and the Avon Tennis Tournament.
The largest source of funds was an annual golf tournament that the Twigs began in 1954 as a pro-am event at Apawamis Club. In 1963 it was moved to Westchester Country Club where it was first called the Thunderbird Classic. It was a popular stop on the PGA Tour, and, beginning in 1967, it became generally known as the Westchester Classic. Even though a number of hospitals in the county received shares of the proceeds, United remained the primary beneficiary.
Despite the substantial community support it received, United faced growing financial problems as well as competition from other nearby hospitals. In the mid-1970s New York State recommended closing its maternity ward along with several others in Westchester because of redundancies (United eventually stopped providing maternity services in the summer of 2000).
Increasing pressure from managed care companies to cut costs and achieve efficiencies caused many hospitals to enter into affiliations in Westchester and elsewhere in the New York Metropolitan region. In the early 1990s, United formed an alliance with New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, which subsequently merged with Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.
Nonetheless, United continued to post operating losses every year from 1990, with annual deficits in the range of $10 million in the years just prior to its closing. Compounding the problem was the fact that more that 90 percent of its patients were on Medicare or Medicaid, which tightly controlled reimbursements.
Unable to invest in the latest technology, the hospital had trouble recruiting new doctors. The board managed to raise $4 million for a new emergency room, but it canceled the plan because the rest of the hospital was so antiquated that it could not support the patient load that the new facility was likely to generate.
The timing of the bankruptcy announcement in the midst of the 2004 holiday season and the precipitous closing of the hospital hit the hospital’s 625 staff members particularly hard. Fortunately, most area residents have been able to find well-rated health care at hospitals in Greenwich and White Plains, as well as at the Open Door Family Medical Center in Port Chester.
Nearly eight years after United Hospital’s doors were finally closed, the Port Chester Village Board and Starwood Capital, which bought the property in bankruptcy, have not reached agreement on a development and zoning plan. As a result, the crumbling building is an eyesore and the property is unproductive. Still, as a New York Times article put it so well: The 115-year-old hospital will live… in a community’s collective memory of births, illnesses, recoveries and deaths.”