The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Ninety-Eight

December 22-31, 1918

Just three days before Christmas, 1918 and Kate Roosevelt was spending a great deal of time inside a department store once known as Siegel- Cooper, “the Big Store.” When it opened on Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets in 1896, the huge emporium, with twenty-three acres of floor space was the largest building in the world. The beautiful Renaissance-style limestone structure had six stories, a grand skylight and literally sold everything under the sun along with a long list of amenities that included: a grocery store; a barber shop; a theater; a telegraph office; an art gallery; a bank; an infirmary; a 350-seat restaurant and a conservatory that sold live plants. At its peak it had three thousand employees. The store was sold to Benedict Greenhut. It went out of business in 1917 during the peak of World War One. Soon after its closing, Mr. Greenhut offered the empty building to the government to use as a debarkation hospital. It was a convenient location. Wounded soldiers returning from overseas could land at Ellis Island and be transported to a dock in Chelsea where ambulances would be ready to complete their journey. In 1918, the United States Government opened the Greenhut Debarkation Hospital in the massive and once-impressive, Siegel-Cooper building. A place where Edwardian ladies in wide-brimmed hats and white gloves shopped for lace and Limoges china now housed Doughboys recuperating from their war wounds in make-shift hospital wards.

Returning Soldiers at Greenhut Hospital

It was clear that Kate Roosevelt was not shopping when she wrote about her visit to Greenhut’s. Her diary entries describe her duties as a volunteer there. “My first day on duty at Greenhut Debarkation Hospital, Number Three.” “Took three men out for some fresh air in Mrs. Ward’s auto.” “To hospital from twelve to five as usual. Big Naval parade of men from fighting ships that have just come back from across the ocean arrived. Some of the fleet is anchored along Riverside Drive.” The Northern Pacific ship loaded with returning troops and wounded arrived.” “Got my first job of Red Cross hostess on the second floor of the hospital.” “First day as Second Floor Hostess at Greenhut Hospital.” “Meeting of Red Cross workers at Greenhut’s. There are a good many cases of diptheria and scarlet fever in hospital. Workers told not to come in for two days.” “To hospital. Had charge of Mr. and Mrs. John Lord of Taunton, Massachusetts. Their son had died of pneumonia at the hospital in the morning. I took them to Grand Central Station and got them and their son’s body off on the 5:10 train.” “At hospital for the one- to- five shift, but stayed until seven. They brought a lot of men in on stretchers to the second- floor hallway. I had to do what I could for them.”

Red Cross Volunteers at Greenhut Hospital

The war was over, but for many returning soldiers who were wounded in battle, their recuperation was just beginning. And families like Mr. and Mrs. Lord would be ever grateful for Kate Roosevelt and the group of Red Cross volunteers who staffed the Greenhut Hospital with care and compassion.

Photo One:
Siegel Cooper Building
New York Public Library
postcard 1896

Photo Two:
Returning Soldiers at Greenhut Hospital
New York Public Library Digital Collection, 1918

Photo Three:
Red Cross Volunteers at Greenhut Hospital
Library of Congress