Pennsylvania Hospital opened its doors in 1755, and the original building not only still stands, but is still in use. I passed it multiple times before I remembered to Google it, and then I learned that the building is available for touring.
The front-and-center main entrance to the building is always closed, and that lovely little garden in front of the building is always bereft of visitors, so I somehow assumed that it was permanently off-limits.
For a guided tour you have to plan ahead more than I did, but the friendly front desk lady said that I was welcome to wander at my leisure. I did buy the $4 guide from the gift shop, and it was pretty useful, so do that.
To visit the historic building, you have to enter through the main hospital entrance on 8th Street. I felt a little inappropriate with my camera slung conspicuously around my neck at the welcome desk, as doctors, nurses, and patients swarmed around me, but no one seemed repulsed by my tourist presence or anything.
The hallway that connects the new building with the historic one is adorned with a painting of Christ healing the sick. It’s the handiwork of Benjamin West in 1815 and pretty on the nose for a hospital setting.
Entering the historic building from the new hospital, the first thing you see is this fire engine from 1803. This was a proud acquisition for the hospital, and legend has it that the Board of Managers tested the engine at the beginning of every Board meeting. In my imagination they tested it by first setting fire to their meeting agendas, because pyromania is funny in my imagination (but not in reality, mind. Do NOT go around setting meeting agendas on fire!).
I didn’t linger too long in any one spot of the main floor of the Pine Building, mostly because the place was swarming with doctors and their swishing white coats. It wasn’t totally clear which areas were fair game and which areas were, you know, offices where medical diagnoses were being made. I quickly scuttled off in search of history and privacy and the library on the second floor was a great place to start.
I didn’t anticipate the library being empty, and it felt so magical (and even a little rule-breaky) to be in there all by myself.
It was also pleasantly cool, because old books deserve a state-of-the-art air conditioning system that the rest of the old hospital apparently does not.
And that’s not a judgment on my part – I don’t quite believe that books should have better treatment than hospital patients, but it’s a close call.
I lived in fear of someone walking in on me in the library and telling me that I was not important enough to be in there, so I soon bolted in search of something new.
This time I went up to the top floor.
I snuck into the old operating theater (I was allowed to be there, again, but since no one was around it felt somehow illicit), and immediately thought of Junior Mints, because I am a product of the nineties and there is no room for new information in my brain as it is filled almost entirely with Seinfeld quotes.
This is the nation’s oldest surgical amphitheater, and, according to pretty much everybody, you did not want to be operated on here.
Not because Pennsylvania Hospital wasn’t at the forefront of medical science, but more because, you know, getting cut open in front of strangers is kind of a drag.
DH told me that these kinds of surgical amphitheaters, before the age of anesthesia, were often placed on top floors because it mean that the screams of the patients usually didn’t reach the streets.
If people were screaming that loudly up there, then I’m doubly certain that I would not have wanted to be spectating in the very same room.
In fact, there are myriad reasons why I’m glad I never got to spectate or be operated on under such circumstances.
But, I will give the operating room this: it’s pretty and ornate. I expected more of a scene straight out of Dexter: just whatever the olden days’ version of Saran Wrap was.
So, I took the Pennsylvania Hospital tour back in the beginning of January and am just now getting around to writing about it. This winter has been a brutal one, and I’ve been using all my energies to survive and watch Netflix series. But today temperatures are back above freezing, and maybe there really is hope. I have more to tell you about Philadelphia adventures and knitting and dog snuggles. Stay tuned, O neglected ones!