Monday, July 15, 2019

History of the Niagara County Infirmary Part 2

1919 Sanborn Insurance Map showing Davison Road property
This is the second of a three part series on the history of the Niagara County Infirmary. The first part will relate how the property became the Infirmary, moving from the Poor House on Niagara Street. The second will be the general history of the Infirmary from 1915 until its closing in 1979. The third installment will focus on the associated cemetery behind the buildings on Davison Road.

In the 1916 inspection by the State Board of Charities, there is a markedly different tone that from those over the past decade or so. “The Niagara County Almshouse is pleasantly located on the outskirts of the City of Lockport, about a quarter mile distant from the tracks of the city trolley line and somewhat nearer to those of the Buffalo and Syracuse Electric Railroad.”

The inmates of the new Infirmary petitioned the mayor and Common Council of Lockport to rename the street Davison Road:

We the undersigned respectfully petition your Honorable Body to change the name of Lover’s Lane to Davison Road in honor of Mr. J.L. Davison the well-known ornithologist, who has lived in Lockport for many years and who is well known to all of Lockport citizens. He bears a nation wide acquaintance and reputation and it would seem to us a pleasant compliment for the city to  honor him, in giving his name to this road. This section of town has always been a favorable field of his for making his observations in the pursuit of his bird studies.

In November 1923, Superintendent of the Poor, Jacob Shimer, asked that a recommendation of the construction of a new building to house those inmates with communicable diseases. Also, the kitchen area in the hospital building was found to be too small for the ice box and cupboards, which were currently placed in the entry to an operating room. An enlargement with its own entrance to the kitchen was to be built in order to relieve congestion. 

A house for the Farm Superintendent was called for in 1929. Albert F. Klemer & Son was awarded the contract for the erection of the house at a cost of $6,657, completing the construction of the Chester Phelps designed house in October.

1928 Sanborn Insurance Map
The inspection by the State in 1930 uncovered overcrowding the hospital only fifteen years into its use. The inspector recommended the addition of an entire wing to prevent further overcrowding and to allow for more classification and privacy. Additional, up to date operating equipment was also recommended. Commissioner of Welfare, Charles W. Walker suggested that an additional costing $35,000 would give them sixteen more beds and private rooms. The Board of Supervisors added $2,000 to that total and asked Chester Phelps to design the new addition so bids could be accepted on the project. Alfred Knack was awarded the bid on December 30, 1930.

By April 1934, another addition was needed. This time the men’s dormitory was getting crowded. The Board of Supervisors agreed that an addition to the dormitory required immediate attention. However, the erection of a chapel would have to wait, as the money for that was simply now available while the Great Depression continued. This addition was ready for occupancy in July 1935, and the work of building a chapel was commenced, with 45% of the costs coming from a Federal grant program. Work on the chapel began in the fall.

Charlotte Mulchay, an RN from the State Department of Social Welfare inspected the older section of the Infirmary on February 4, 1938, twenty-three years after it’s opening. She noted that a plethora of vermin, including lice, bed bugs and roaches had infested the oldest parts of the ward, and that a professional exterminator had been employed to eradicate them. She noted the beds were rusted with broken springs and worn out mattresses. She felt that a nurses residence was “much needed” as at that time the nurses were housed in the attic above the wards. The nurses required a chance to “get away from the environment of the Infirmary when off duty.”

Superintendent Milton Switzer reported to the Board of Supervisors in November 1940 that the infirmary hospital was vastly overcrowded and in desperate need of an enlargement. He requested that $50,000 be put into a building fund for the project. After an inspection by the County Welfare Committee, they concurred that the hospital was inadequate and that the nurses were in a very poor condition for housing and that the dining rooms were also too small for the inmates to use safely. The committee suggested that a wholesale survey be done for the Infirmary grounds. That investigation revealed that there was a general overcrowding condition throughout the complex, rather than just in the hospital. By the end of 1941, the Board of Supervisors had vacillated between $50,000 and $100,000 being added to the building fund.

Finally, at the March 7, 1944 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, they agree to Kidd & Kidd of Buffalo as architects and Leon Wendel as engineer to draw up plans and specifications for a new Infirmary hospital under a Post War Project. The cost should not exceed $200,000. It would be another four years before the project got underway.

At the April 7, 1948 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, an advertisement for bids for a new building at the Infirmary went out. They were received in late August and reviewed for a vote on September 2nd. Over the previous four years, amounts had been added to the budget for this new construction, totalling $295,000. It was estimated at that time for the costs to total $740,000 for the entire project. Charles L. Thiele of Niagara Falls and Leon Wendel were the architects and engineers, with Laur & Mack fulfilling the role as general contractors. Construction began immediately and would take just over a year to complete.

The grand opening of the new Infirmary building took place on April 23, 1950, with a grand celebration emceed by State Senator Earl W. Brydges as the master of ceremonies. Nearly 3,000 people came to see the new, 120-bed facility as it was finally opened. Two speakers at the event suggested the building be named in honor of Milton E. Switzer, the Commissioner of Public Welfare, and his wife, Nellie. Switzer was the Niagara County Welfare Commissioner from 1938 until his retirement in 1952. Nellie assisted her husband, serving as superintendent of the infirmary.

November 1, 1953 the Department of Social Welfare consolidated their three offices around the county into a single office at the Infirmary. That same year, inmates assigned to the Infirmary were required to surrender any assets they may have had to the department to assist in their care. Any patient who had the means to pay for a nursing home were transferred to those facilities in order to free up the beds for indigent residents of the county. At that time, it cost $4.02 per day to care for those people at the Infirmary.

Disaster struck the Infirmary on June 16, 1955 when a short circuit in one of the barns on the farm ignited chaff and hay. Five barns were destroyed, killing two cows and two calves. All the milking and pasteurizing equipment were destroyed along with the farm machinery and tools. The nineteen surviving cows were sent to a farm at Johnson’s Creek for care. Seventy tons of hay were burned and 800 bushels of corn. The buildings destroyed were the cattle barn, a general barn, two equipment sheds, a pig pen, two silos, and the milk house.

In the wake of the blaze, the Board of Supervisors sold off the remaining cattle and the hay crop at public auction. The decision was made to not replace the cattle buildings nor the cattle themselves. They would discontinue growing hay, grain, and corn while keeping the orchards and vineyard active. As a result of the fire, a modern, fire detection system was installed which was directly connected to the Lockport Fire Department headquarters. 

Barely six months after the demise of farming at the Infirmary, Samuel Carpenella, President of the 5th Ward Republican Club, petitioned the Board of Supervisors to construct a golf course “on the order of Erie County’s Chestnut Ridge Park” with facilities for skiing and skating. At a Board of Supervisors meeting held September 4, 1957 agreed that a closer look at the Infirmary property for expansion of the county parks system was desired. A nine-hole course was initially proposed, with fees from golfers being used to “maintain the course on a self-sustaining basis.”

“Considerable effort has been made to study the unused facilities of the Infirmary Farm to determine its availability possibly for additional park features. This land totals 280 acres is well drained by the headwaters of the 18 Mile Creek running through the middle of the property from the east to the west and appears to be very fine soil, together with being a valuable piece of land.”

“Immediate plans, by the State of New York, for a road to be an extension of Walnut Street, through the property has been well defined with the result that there will be approximately 86 acres north of this proposed road… and will leave 184 acres south of this proposed road in an “L” shaped piece of which there will be approximately 29 acres of weeds and the remaining acreage of cleared ground which would have to be used for other than picnic purposes. It seems entirely possible that the Infirmary Property would be an ideal location for such a golf course.”

Daunt I. Stenzel, Commissioner of Welfare, came up with a plan to use unemployed workers on the job to prepare the grounds for the golf course. The idea was to use the rate of $1.50 per hour to determine the hours each person could work. “For example, a person receiving $30 per week in home relief would work 20 hours; a person receiving $45 would work 30 hours.” William S. Hilger, international representative of the UAW-CIO fired back at Stenzel’s plan as a “dastardly act aimed at invading the rights of citizens. When a person becomes destitute through no fault of his own and is forced to work for his home relief in such a’s reducing our unemployed to virtual slavery.”

When ground broke on the new golf course on April 3, 1958, Stenzel provided the Superintendent of Park, Richard L. Rutland, with three men who would be paid $1.72 per hour and thus stricken from the relief rolls. Leon H. Wendel was hired to design and consult in the construction of the course. By the fall, the nine-hole course had been expanded to an 18-hole course across 225 acres. It was expected to take two years to finish the project. Supervisor Clarence Groff wanted to add a public swimming pool next to the golf course because of the “scarcity of protective swimming pools in the eastern part of the county.” The course, without the pool, was completed and ready to open for its first season on May 1, 1961.

The Niagara County Golf Course was formally dedicated on July 22, 1962 with Edmund H. Brown performing as master of ceremonies. The event was attended by 250 people, who were treated to an exhibition match featuring Jimmy Thomson. Thomson was a professional golfer who had narrowly lost the 1936 PGA Championship to Denny Shute. Thomson later appeared in the films The Caddy with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin; and Shoot Yourself Some Golf With Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman.

Switzer Building 1967
As the need for a community college arose, questions about where the school could be located were asked. One of the possible locations considered by members of the public was the Infirmary property. A couple of high points in favor of utilizing the grounds was that the land was already county owned and tax exempt, and there were at least three buildings there to use for the college in a temporary status. It was also pointed out that a college near the eastern edge of the county would draw students from Orleans County and offset Niagara University at the western end of Niagara County. 

There were many groups advocating for the placement of Niagara County Community College at the Davison Road property. Among them were the Lockport Council of Parents & Teachers, Olcott Lions Club, B. Leo Dolan Post, Navy-Marine Club, VFW Post, Knights of Columbus, and the Gasport PTA. Ultimately, the drive to land the new community college in Lockport failed, and the college landed in the Shredded Wheat factory of Niagara Falls temporarily until the campus could be constructed in Sanborn.

The beginning of the end for the Niagara County Infirmary began in 1971 when hospital consultants were hired to improve health care services in eastern and central Niagara County. Part of the project would see the merger of Mount View and Lockport Memorial Hospital. The Infirmary would be reclassified as a health facility rather than a nursing home. The nursing home part of the campus would be entirely phased out, as it had been in the process of doing since 1959.

Aerial view of the new Niagara County Golf Course
Later in 1971, the Switzer building was formally given that name at a ceremony on June 8th. While it had been known informally as the Switzer Building, nothing had been in the minutes making it legally that name. A new plaque was unveiled at the ceremony, with Milton Switzer joining in the festivities in his honor. Also in 1971, the Legislature made changes to the overseeing of the Infirmary. Upon the retirement of Daunt Stenzel on December 31st, the wife of the Social Services Commissioner would no longer serve as Superintendent of the Infirmary. Additionally, the house provided to the Commissioner and his family would no longer be a perk of the job. 

A deficit of $1.4 million in the operation of Mount View and the Infirmary in 1975 meant that a solution was needed to stem the flow of money out of the coffers. The County Health Committee recommended moving the patients from the Infirmary to a renovated building on the Mount View campus. One of the legislators offered up a proposal to hand over both Mount View and the Infirmary to a non-profit organization. The transfer of patients to Mount View was approved in April 1976. The last patients would be transferred as of July 1, 1979. 

With the patients gone from the Infirmary, the Switzer Building was converted into an office building to house Social Services. That department moved into new premises in 2003, and since that time, the building has been vacant.

Craig Bacon is the Deputy Niagara County Historian. The Niagara County Historians Office is located at 139 Niagara Street on the corner of Niagara and Hawley Streets. Offices hours are 8:30-4:30, Wednesday through Friday.

All photos courtesy Niagara County Historians Office.