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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Spring 1996, Vol.16, No.2
This Mystery Holds Water

By Nicholas P. Christy'51

Entering the ground floor of the P&S Building, you do not know right away that you are facing a mystery. But if you examine the walls closely on the north and south faces of the hallway leading east into the Presbyterian Hospital building, you find them covered with brown, blue-veined, highly polished, expensive-looking marble panels. Looking harder still, you see something odd: a niche in the south wall, with an arched top, outlined by a narrow band of white plaster, nine feet east of the stairway leading to the second floor. In truth, it is an ex-niche, a space where a niche used to be; this space is 16 inches wide, 30 inches high. Why, if at all, is this niche interesting? What used to occupy that space? If your memory stretches back far enough, a little reflection fills the blank space. It used to contain a drinking fountain. But something seems wrong with it. Approaching the ex-niche for a closer look, bending forward as if to get a drink of water, you see what is amiss. The structure is set so low that you strain your lumbar spine leaning over to drink. It turns out that the niche is placed only two feet above floor level, whereas all the other fountains in the medical center are set at three feet. Except for this one.

It seems we have a mystery, a puzzle, a conundrum, important because it involves the history of P&S. Here is a simple apparatus, supposed to serve normal people. Then why was it situated so close to the ground? I first noticed this low-set fountain in 1942 when the building was only 14 years old. The question arises: How to prove that the fountain dates from the original plan? The first step would be to get the plans. Officialdom told me the blueprints where unavailable. I asked again and was informed that the plans were probably in Mr. So-and-So's office, hard to find. Maybe somebody could get at them? Well, perhaps Mr. Such-and-Such could, but he hasn't the time just now. All this merely whetted my appetite. Quietly, I requested help from the dean's office and learned who the right man was. He was most cooperative, supplying several blueprints and photocopies. These were hard to read, but in many different projections one could make out this small niche marked "DF." There it was, where its residual outline still is, with the measurements all spelled out. Evidently, the architect did mean to set the thing two feet above the floor.

Why did he do that? Curious, I sought the written amplifications architects always supply with their raw plans. The next question arose: Where are those specifications? The facilities department had the answer: lost in a fire. A warehouse downtown had burned up years ago, in the '40s.

The mystery deepened. How to proceed? Study the plans again. The architect was James Gamble Rogers, a famous designer, known for his flights of fancy, whose firm's address was 367 Lexington Avenue. Examination of the current Manhattan telephone directory and of the site disclosed that the firm is no longer there. I applied to Rogers' grandson, also an architect. He too searched but could find no records.

Lacking data, I began to cast about for an explanation. Could the low fountain have been a blunder? Did Rogers intend "three feet" but write "two" in error? Could he have designed the fountain for people in wheelchairs? Not probable: (a) in 1925 nobody designed buildings to accommodate persons with physical handicaps; and (b) a low-placed fountain should have gone into the hospital building, where wheelchairs would be, not in the school. In the end I had to form my own hypothesis, something along these lines: The architect, for some reason not clear, wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees, asking the age of medical students. The Board, of course not knowing, in turn asked the Faculty of Medicine, which answered "21 to 25." A Trustee dictated a letter to Rogers, repeating the figures "21 to 25." The secretary, while typing the letter, was interrupted by a stressful telephone call. What came out in the final version of the letter to Rogers was this: "The average age of average medical students is 5." The architect assumed: That's about kindergarten age; the students ought to be, say, three to four feet tall. Therefore, a two-feet-above-the-floor drinking fountain made perfect sense.

You will have to decide for yourself whether this speculative hypothesis holds water-or not.

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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