Although there are a few titles on the side of the deadpan institutional relic, “Hyde Park Hospital,” and “Doctors Hospital” being the most deeply-etched of the lot, its first name is covered over by decades of remodeling, that being ‘Illinois Central Hospital.’
Having arrived in the city only an hour before, parking in front of this potential time capsule only added to my adrenaline rush; the building’s 1914 construction and colonial revival style shined behind the steel plating over the doors and windows. Walking through the front door, knowing only that the University of Chicago had acquired the property and had failed to sell it to a hotel developer, I welcomed whatever mysteries were locked up inside with its cool air rushing past me.
“Still smells like a hospital,” I thought, as I gathered my camera and tripod and escaped the humid day to see what had survived the decade of neglect.
Unfortunately, for all that the help dispensed over its career, there seemingly wasn’t much left over for the hospital itself; the corroded hallways and standing water on the second floor medical suites told a garbled story of a clinic that couldn’t keep its head above the water.
A Company Hospital First
When Illinois Central Railroad, whose rail lines laid a mere 170 feet from the building, constructed the hospital, its purpose was expressly, “To deal with traumatic injuries, such as the mangled legs and arms of railroad workers in need of amputation.” What it became, however, was a community hospital in chronic financial trouble that was eventually forced to close under dubious circumstances.
Hyde Park Community Hospital, as it was called at the time of initial litigation, seemed doomed to close when the government sued the institution over alleged Medicare fraud in 1999, a lawsuit which was settled for 4.5 million dollars. The hospital would have closed then if it wasn’t for the power of its leader, Dr. Desnick, whose suspicious melding of personal and professional funds would soon make both he and his hospital more infamous. However badly the reputation of this hospital was infected, the doors somehow remained open with 240 beds. It is of interest that Dr. Desnick saved the hospital from bankruptcy in 1992. By the looks of the moldy walls, I might have guessed that it had been abandoned since then, instead of 2000.
The building wasn’t completely broken; a few areas stood out as pieces of beauty amongst the ruin. In a corridor, a series of fire exit signs hung in a row, having fallen out of the ceiling as it disintegrated; mustard-yellow paint peeled away in big chips from the wood-carved main staircase of the old hospital to reveal a beige underside; gracefully arched, tile-plated rooms lined the narrow, linear hallways of the renovated sections. One of the surgical suites was named after James Williams, a former Tuskegee Airman who served as chief surgeon for a time here.
After a time I strolled back toward the glare of the summer afternoon and pushed through the cool air of Illinois Central Hospital onto the street, it was recently announced that the University planned again to demolish the complex, this time to build a school. These plans fell through, and led to the demolition of the hospital in 2011.
History is a lesson plan in and of itself; all we have to do is pay attention and the mysteries of today unravel for those who notice the details and trace the patterns.