Princeton Hospital – The End of An Era

By Anne Levin

Images courtesy of University Medical Center of Princeton

Snce last September, contractors have been painstakingly demolishing the old Princeton Hospital to make room for a 280-unit development of rental apartments. The rambling complex that has stood for nearly a century at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Franklin Avenue, a beacon of Princeton’s Witherspoon/Jackson neighborhood, has been slowly disappearing amid the clanging, drilling, and dust.

Watching it all from their windows and front porches are area residents, several from families that have worked at the hospital for generations. Many are now employed at the new hospital, known as University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. The gleaming facility on Route One is only three miles from the old hospital site. But to some residents of the neighborhood, it is a world away from “their” hospital, a safe haven that not only provided employment but stood ready to deliver their babies, set their broken bones, and treat their ailments.

Kimbryl (Kim) Beasley, who grew up on Birch Avenue and works as an operating room assistant at the hospital, where he has been employed for 37 years, remembers getting hit by a car when he was ten years old. “I just went across the street and they took care of me,” he says. “You felt safe because you knew it was there if you got hurt. That’s just the way it was.”

Among the hospital’s longest serving employees are sisters Hettie Dean and Daisy Hubbard. Ms. Dean, who wouldn’t reveal her age, has lived in the neighborhood surrounding the old hospital since coming to Princeton from North Carolina a number of decades ago. Working first in the Center Supply department before moving to the recovery room, and more recently, the outpatient recovery room, she has weathered the move to the new facility with mixed emotions. “It’s different because it’s bigger. It’s a nice place,” she says. “The only thing I dislike is that you don’t get to see all the people you knew in the old place, who still work here. So I miss that. I like the old place, but I’m getting used to the new one.”

Shirley Satterfield never worked at the old hospital, but she knew it well. “I got my tonsils out there when I was eight years old,” she recalls. “I remember I walked across the street on Easter Sunday, and had them out on Easter Monday. It was a big part of our community. All we had to do was go across the street. Einstein died in that hospital, and we knew that. A lot of our families worked there.”

“The hospital generated a lot of opportunities for people in the neighborhood,” says John Washington of Birch Avenue. Washington’s late wife Jacqueline (who was Kim Beasley’s mother) worked at the hospital as a ward clerk for more than 40 years. “It was definitely a focus of the community. Everyone knew each other,” Washington adds. “Now, it’s not the same. You had relationships. You said hello to everyone. But when a hospital moves like that, it takes it all away.”

Others have made their peace with the transition. The hospital has been a part of Nancy Zorochin’s life for as long as she can remember. She grew up on Chestnut Street, in Princeton’s “tree streets” neighborhood, a few blocks north of the hospital. Zorochin is a community liaison at the affliliated Princeton House  Behavioral Health center. “I was born and raised in Princeton. My grandfather was a co-founder of the Princeton Fire and Rescue Squad,” she says. “We had so many ties to the hospital. My father was born there and he met my mother there. They had seven kids there.”

Zorochin remembers visiting her mother, who worked at the hospital, with her siblings. “We’d eat at the little cafe. They had the best hot dogs,” she says. “We’d cut through there in the summer to get to the pool. I ended up going to nursing school there and then got a job at Princeton House. I’ve been there 34 years. I just moved to Ocean County and I commute. I would never leave. It’s a very close-knit community. It was a small-town hospital, and that core group is still here. It was a wonderful opportunity for the hospital to grow, but I still feel connected because a lot of the same faces are still there.”

Victoria Meisel is a registered nurse in the Endoscopy department of the hospital, where she has been employed for three decades. Meisel lived on Birch Avenue before moving to Lawrence Township, and has kept close ties to the Witherspoon/Jackson neighborhood. “I go to church there, so even after I moved, I felt like it was still my home. And the hospital was always a big part of it,” she says. “It was a good experience working there, in the old building—like a family. My brother worked there, too.”

Meisel admits to missing the camaraderie of the hospital in its former location. But she understands the motivation for the move, which took place in May of 2012. “I was sad in the beginning. I knew every part of that building, and all of its extensions,” she says. “But I think it was a good idea to move. We really did need a new building. The new one is state of the art, very bright and sunny. We get a lot of compliments from patients.”

Princeton’s medical center began in two rooms on Witherspoon Street in 1901. By 1908, the small facility had expanded to a cottage on Bayard Lane with three rooms—one for the care of emergencies; the other two for in-patients. The cottage was soon outgrown, and in 1919, Mrs. Moses Taylor Pyne and Mr. Walter Harris gave five acres of land at the top of Witherspoon Street, on which a large house stood, to the people of Princeton for a town hospital. It opened with a staff of five doctors on November 24 of that year.

According to documents at the Historical Society of Princeton, the doctors cared for 350 patients that first year. After another year, a house on Witherspoon Street was rented for a nurses’ residence. A maternity ward was added in 1923. Two years on, it was clear that Princeton needed a bigger and more comprehensive facility. More than 5,000 residents of the town subscribed $602,000 for the cause. The Princeton Hospital at Witherspoon and Franklin began serving the public on January 3, 1928.

Some Witherspoon/Jackson neighborhood residents who work at the new hospital take the #655 NJ Transit bus to and from work each day. But it doesn’t run on weekends or holidays, and that doesn’t sit well with everyone.

The hospital’s chief executive officer Barry Rabner says he knew that relocating would have an effect on members of the surrounding neighborhood. “One of the things we were sensitive to when trying to figure out the best solution to provide care in the community was the impact it could have on people who not only lived in the immediate vicinity, but those who worked at the hospital,” he says. “These are people whose families have lived in the neighborhood for decades. Whole families had been working at the hospital—cousins, brothers, sisters. We have someone who has worked here over 50 years. Another extended family had 26 members working here. I discovered that at an employee recognition dinner.”

The hospital held public meetings to explain to the local community the decision to move. “By the time we were done, there was broad consensus that it was necessary,” Rabner says. “Our employees were wearing two hats – they were neighbors and they were employees. But they understood. Whatever the hassles were, they saw over time just how dramatically better their work environment is. And the care is better. I’m not aware of anyone from the old neighborhood not continuing to work here because of the logistics. And that’s gratifying.”

Rabner has fond memories of running into patients and staff members at the Hunan restaurant on Witherspoon Street, and walking down to Conte’s for pizza. “It was very, very nice,” he says. “But that’s gone. We’re now on 171 acres. We’ve got this developing health campus. So there’s no denying that something’s been lost. It’s unfortunate in that way. And the facility is bigger, which has changed people’s interactions. The walking is over.”