No Charity Case
A Brief Excursion
The clouds looked down at the little brick outline on the edge of St. Louis, Missouri and smirked, turning the many invisible valves deep within, letting loose millions of lakes onto the blot. One of the boards buckled, followed by its neighbors, before a poorly defined gap formed an oval. Then, the water poured through.
Drips across the yellow-stained plaster carried the walls into the cracks between the floor tiles, giving the wards their best washing in years before thin layers of brick dust powdered the corridors. Waves of rain moved from the hole through the wood of the roof before looking down, judging the distance before the dive…
“I’m going for the bed—feeling a bit drained.”
“That stretcher’s mine—I’ve caught some foul air.”
“Floor looks good to me—I’ll aim for that dry spot next to the mattresses.”
Flooding slowly, floor-by-floor, the wards were as full as they’ve been in years; the commotion of the water and weather attracted even more attention.
As those first drops dried inside, a rotten door gave up the fight below and bigger things came in. The acrid stench of spray paint moved through the hall, past the check-in desk and X-ray room… not a sign of progress, but instead the mere trademarks of visitors. These aren’t the sick ones that laid in rolling beds or grievers come to say their farewells, those sad ones that these little metal chairs once hugged.
Time had moved into the wards, a chronic patient, and had thus transported this old hospital from the suburb to downtown, from landmark to blight.
Decades brought new knowledge into the wards, its rooms, its halls, so now it watched as more drops skydived through its roof, as throngs of visitors moved through its halls and as bits of itself began migrating out into the world.
The bricks became jealous of the drops, and decided on one boring winter day to dive into clay-red piles in the basement. The rolling beds and wheelchairs then became jealous of the visitors, and rolled down the stairs and into the alleyways. “Take me with you.”
All the time, more tidbits that once defined and enabled the healing that happened here evaporated into backpacks, pockets and idling trucks, sorted by asking price and uniqueness.
I can only hope the rest of the hospital doesn’t covet those fading facets, and that soon–before it loses everything–all its walls turn into powder and its soul turns into air. When that happens, the hospital will know it’s time; that as so many little warm things became cold in its walls that it too must change someday, as natural and predictable as rain falling from a cloud.
A Brief History
St. Mary’s Infirmary first opened to patients in 1877 in a mansion on the edge of town, one built for a Missouri Senator, Carl Shurz. Its monochromatic proprietors were nicknamed the “Smallpox Sisters” because of their work containing and treating the disease in St. Louis, the city that so badly needed their help. To better serve the community, they commissioned a new infirmary to be built next to their converted house in 1889; this new building is the oldest still standing today.
Our concept of germs as a cause of sickness, broadly called “Germ Theory”, was not a concrete fact at the time, but one of two competing notions of sickness. Germ Theory’s principal rival being the Miasma Theory. According to the Miasma Theory, pollution and overcrowding contributed to “foul air” that caused illness. To combat this, hospital designers called for high ceilings, lots of windows and sunlight and access to fresh air; this is often called the “Kirkbride Plan,” although this facet of Thomas Kirkbride’s designs were not unique to his guidelines.
Technology and education were hallmarks of the hospital, defining it as one of the premier and most highly-rated of its kind in the country. In 1907 St. Mary’s began one of the first Catholic nursing schools, and a decade later was equipped with X-ray equipment, a new and cutting-edge technology at that time.
As equipment and staff were added, so were new buildings. An addition was built to the west of the original infirmary in 1896, the same year that a cyclone damaged the complex. Despite the damage, however, 1,310 patients were treated that year, almost 800 of which being charity cases, who paid nothing for their treatment. Another expansion was added to the west of the complex in 1906, and one more in 1946: a nurse dormitory called “Sacred Heart Hall” capable of housing 86 nurses-in-training.
St. Mary’s Infirmary played an important role in its service of the local Black community of St. Louis, too. In March 1933, the hospital opened its wards to African-American patients, only the second to do so in the city, and served its Black patrons with the city’s first racially-integrated nursing staff.
The 150 hospital beds at St. Mary’s did much to alleviate overcrowding at St. Louis’ only municipal hospital that served Blacks, a significant percentage of the local population, then and now.
As the buildings grew older and the neighborhood poorer, the nuns moved away and around the state and country, starting more “St. Mary’s” hospitals in the model of their St. Louis achievements. By October 1966, the last patients were being discharged and administrators were handing over parts of the infirmary to be used as a “Police Detoxification Center“, a role St. Mary’s would fulfill for only two years.
The Shurz mansion and other hospital buildings were demolished in 1991, and three years later after that all the buildings became quiet, except for the Corrections Department’s short-term utilization of the laundry facilities.
Now some newspaper articles talk of rehabilitating the site, as there is a lot of precedent for converting such buildings into senior housing and student apartments. This seems unlikely given the state of the buildings, though, as even since my visit parts of the hospital have collapsed, usually these events trigger what is known as ’emergency condemnation’.