The small Romanesque Revival Strecker Memorial Laboratory is located at the southern end of Roosevelt Island, originally situated between the Smallpox Hospital and the now demolished Charity Hospital. Before Charity Hospital was demolished, the Laboratory provided an interesting contrast to both Hospitals in terms of scale and style. Designed by New York architects Frederick Clarke Withers & Walter Dickson, the building was constructed in 1892 and was administered under the direction of Charity (later City) Hospital to conduct pathological and bacteriological work. The building was the gift of the daughter of a Mr. Strecker, and as Dr. Charles G. Child Jr. wrote in his history of City Hospital (1904) it was “an illustration of what lasting good an intelligent woman can do to perpetuate the memory of a dear one.”
Pathological medicine made rapid advances during the 19th century, and laboratories such as this one reflect the increasingly scientific nature of its study and investigation. The first floor of Strecker Memorial Laboratory featured a room for the routine examination of specimens, an autopsy room, as well as a mortuary. On the second floor were rooms for more detailed research and experimentation. In 1905, the laboratory was remodeled, probably at the urging of the head pathologist Horst Oertel. Oertel was an emigrant to the United States and, as such, was well acquainted with the pioneering work in pathology being carried on in Europe at the time by prominent individuals such as Rudolf Virchow. The remodeling in 1905, which included the addition of a third story to the laboratory, provided facilities for histological examination as well as museum and library space. In 1907, Oertel received an endowment provided by the Russell Sage Foundation, and thus the “Russell Sage Institute of Pathology” was first house in the Laboratory. When new facilities for this Institute were built, it relocated, while Strecker Memorial Laboratory continued to serve as the pathological center for City Hospital and the City Home (formerly Almshouse).
Frederick Clarke Withers (1828-1901), the senior partner of the firm which designed the laboratory, was an Englishman trained in Great Britain, who came to the United States in 1852 at the invitation of the renowned American landscape architect, Alexander Jackson Downing. Unfortunately, Downing drowned that same year following the explosion off the steamboat Henry Clay. Withers then became associated with Calvert Vaux, Downing’s former partner. In 1857, Withers was one of the first individuals to be asked to join newly founded American Institute of Architects. Although he always retained this British citizenship, he volunteered for service in the Union Army in 1861. He returned home an invalid the following year, but soon recovered and resumed practice in New York City, joining Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead in a partnership which lasted until 1871. In 1888, he formed a partnership with Walter Dickson (1834-1903). Together, as supervising architects for the Commission of Charities and Corrections, they designed several buildings on Roosevelt Island, among them Strecker Memorial Laboratory and three brick structures for the Almshouse. With his former partner Calvert Vaux, Withers had previously designed several buildings for the Commission of Charities and Correction, most notably the High Victorian Gothic Jefferson Market Courthouse, located in the Greenwich Village Historic District, which is the best known of Wither’s works found in New York City. Among his other New York commissions were three commercial buildings at 448 Broom Street in the Soho Cast Iron Historic District, the high altar, reredos, the robing room of Trinity Church, and the lich gate of the “Little Church Around the Corner” (Church of the Transfiguration). Primarily considered an ecclesiastical architect, Withers published the influential book Church Architecture in 1873. The Chapel of the Good Shepherd constructed between 1888-1889 on Roosevelt Island clearly illustrates his conception of church architecture. Walter Dickson who had practiced architecture in Albany for many years before coming to New York, designed the Albany Post Office and the Albany City Prison which replaced the original “Tombs.”
Strecker Memorial Laboratory, although small in size, is monumental in its overall effect. Essentially Romanesque Revival in style, similar in manner to the late work of Henry Hobson Richardson, suggested by the broad arched openings and the use of rough-faced stone-gray gneiss, quarried on the island and used for many of its institutional buildings. The use of contrasting orange brick for quoins, sting courses, and the arches gives the building a vivid polychromatic effect that is reminiscent of Wither’s earlier compositions in the Victorian Gothic style. As a result of the non-ecclesiastic building type as well as the change in the style from Gothic, which Withers generally favored, to Romanesque it can be surmised that Dickson was largely responsible for the design.
The type of Romanesque Revival architecture which H. H. Richardson (1838-1886) developed became very popular among American architects in the 1880’s and early 1890’s. Broad arches, rough stone facing, modest use of polychrome, and the asymmetrical massing of elements are all hallmarks of the style. It was widely used for domestic, public, and institutional buildings. Montgomery Schuyler, noted 19th century architectural critic felt that the Romanesque Revival offered a firm foundation of which to build the elements of a “true and living architecture, such as for four centuries the world has not seen.” (Architectural Record I (October-December 1891). The Strecker Memorial Laboratory is designed in a late version of the Romanesque revival, characteristic of its date.