From Power Plant to Climbing Gym: Adaptive Reuse at St. Louis’ City Hospital

Posted on: January 9th, 2013 by Michael R. Allen 2 Comments

Today we're pleased to kick off a new series from guest blogger Michael Allen, founder and director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis. Over the next few weeks, he'll share the remarkable transformation of the power plant at St. Louis' City Hospital building -- the only historic power plant building in the United States that has been reused for a large-volume recreational purpose (in this case, a climbing gym!).

Our hope: that Michael's example of inventive preservation from his hometown inspires you to look at your local places with new eyes and fresh ideas. So if you have any questions or insights during the series, please share in the comments! -- J.R.
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Postcard view showing the completed group of Georgian Revival hospital buildings designed by Albert B. Groves, sometime after 1912. Credit: Preservation Research Office.
Postcard view showing the completed group of Georgian Revival hospital buildings designed by Albert B. Groves, sometime after 1912.

The stately red brick Power Plant at City Hospital today stands as a testament to the transformative power of adaptive reuse. The building now houses an indoor climbing gym as well as two restaurant spaces currently being built out. Few traces remain of the building’s long period of vacancy after City Hospital closed in 1985, and the boilers and generators that made this building an integral part of the hospital for 48 years have been removed.

Yet the form of the building, the lofty machine hall inside, and the building’s tall smokestack appear much as they did when drawn under the supervision of municipal architect Albert A. Osburg as part of a Public Works Administration-aided reinvention of the crowded City Hospital into a modern medical facility serving the city’s poor. After completion in 1937, the Power Plant has been a key part of the hospital’s three phases of life: service, abandonment, and renewal.

In the Beginning: The Power Plant Site and the Evolving City Hospital Complex

The St. Louis City Hospital was founded on July 10, 1845 to serve the poor residents of what was then a cholera-infested city. Located at the head of Soulard Street, now the infamous corner of 14th Street and Lafayette Avenue, the first building was partly finished by June, 1846, when patients started to move in.

Only 90 patients could be admitted at the time. A new hospital built later in 1857 housed 450 patients.

Bird’s eye view of the original City Hospital Building, which had been built in 1845. Credit: St. Louis Building Arts Foundation.
Bird’s eye view of the original City Hospital Building, which had been built in 1845.

In 1872, plans were developed contemplating Mansard style buildings facing Lafayette Avenue, and calling for the removal of all original structures. However, only one new wing was built on vacant land to the west of the hospital.

North of the City Hospital was City Block 1250. Bounded by Dillon Street on the west, Park Avenue on the north, St. Ange Avenue on the east, and Carroll Street on the south, this block would someday be the site of the hospital’s Power Plant. Building permits show a flurry of construction between 1878 and 1895 resulting in blocks densely built-out with two to three story brick dwellings and tenements, as well as a wagon shop and stable.

The Power Plant site was built out starting in 1878, when R. Germer built a two-story brick dwelling on Dillon for a cost of $1,000. In 1881, M. Ludwig built a two-story brick dwelling at the northeast corner of Dillon and Carroll streets. The reported construction cost was $2,800.

Later additions to the site included a two-story brick stable built by F. Ziegler in 1891, and two-and-a-half-story brick flats built by Gertrude Reisch in 1891 for $3,400. A 1909 Sanborn fire insurance map shows eight two-family flats (tenements), with six in a row, facing Carroll Street and a freestanding tenement facing Dillon on the north. Seven more two-family buildings face Dillon across the alley.

The block upon which the Power Plant would be built as depicted on the Sanborn fire insurance map of 1908. Credit: University of Missouri
The block upon which the Power Plant would be built as depicted on the Sanborn fire insurance map of 1908.

These buildings would have been built in common vernacular brick traditions, and the costs suggest fairly modest finishes compared to construction activity in Lafayette Square to the west. The names of all of the building permits for the block are decidedly German until the mid-twentieth century. By then, the great Cyclone of 1896 destroyed the hospital and led to the need for a new facility.

Construction began in 1898 on a group of buildings along Carroll Street with the Hospital Commissioner’s office building sited on Fourteenth Street. While the Board of Public Improvements was responsible for the design, drawings indicate that Building Commissioner James Smith, architect William Bond, and architect Albert Groves were involved in designing the eight buildings completed by 1908.

These original buildings, different as they were from each other in plan and function, were unified by a Georgian Revival style that used formal fenestration, low hipped roofs, tall openings containing six-over-six windows, brick quoins on the corners, and decorative stonework.

The City Hospital experienced severe damage during the tornado that struck St. Louis on May 27, 1896. Credit: St. Louis Building Arts Foundation.
The City Hospital experienced severe damage during the tornado that struck St. Louis on May 27, 1896.

The five-story Administration Building and its flanking ward wings, which were built between 1910 and 1912, also followed the Georgian Revival style. Groves, then officially serving Architect for the Board of Public Improvements, designed the buildings. These imposing buildings faced Lafayette Avenue, and today remain a major landmark on the near south side.

Grove detailed the buildings similar to those earlier City Hospital buildings, but he imposed symmetry on the arrangement that added a formality to the hospital’s entrance. The Administration and ward buildings defined the style of the hospital, and later additions would continue to make use of the style, detailing and materials used by Groves.

For a hospital dedicated to serving the city’s indigent, the dignified and modern architectural appearance of the facility would have been reassuring. Still, over the next thirty years, the demands for care and the allocations from the city’s general revenue did not always meet...

Next week: Modernizing City Hospital and the Power Plant Building

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Michael R. Allen

Michael R. Allen is the Director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis, which he founded in 2009. Recent activities include learning video editing and naming his cat after Oscar Niemeyer.

Adaptive Reuse, Revitalization

2 Responses

  1. Randy

    February 5, 2013

    Awesome story, awesome history. Is there a part two yet?

  2. National Trust for Historic Preservation

    February 6, 2013

    Hi Randy,

    We have several parts! You can check out the whole series here: http://blog.preservationnation.org/tag/st-louis-city-hospital/

    Thanks for reading,

    Julia Rocchi
    Managing Editor