Modernizing St. Louis' City Hospital and the Power Plant Building

Posted on: January 16th, 2013 by Michael R. Allen

Part 2 of our guest series on the remarkable transformation of a hospital power plant in St. Louis. Last week detailed how the hospital complex developed; today's post explores its expansion phase in the early 20th century. Read the series to date.

The Power Plant in 2008. Credit: Preservation Research Office.
The Power Plant in 2008.

Modernizing St. Louis' City Hospital and the Power Plant Building

Overcrowding at the City Hospital led the city’s Hospital Commission to find funding as early as 1930 to expand the facility. With a variety of bond issues backing the project, the first buildings planned were a new psychiatric ward for City Hospital, the Malcolm Bliss Psychopathic Hospital, and a new modern power plant.

A grant from the Public Words Administration in 1939 allowed Albert Osburg, Chief Architect of the Board of Public Service, to design a master plan for the hospital’s growth that included a 14-story addition, completed in 1942 as the Tower Building, as well as Laundry and Ancillary Services buildings. (The designs of all of the buildings designed in the 1930s can be attributed to Osburg given his supervising role in the Board of Public Service, although plans do not always list the name of any architect.)

The interior of the Power Plant in 2000. Credit: Lynn Josse for the City Hospital Historic District National Register of Historic Places nomination.
The interior of the Power Plant in 2000. Photo taken for the City Hospital Historic District National Register of Historic Places nomination.

In his service to city government, Osburg supervised the design of many significant public buildings. One of Osburg’s early works was the plan for Soulard Market (1928), which derived its Renaissance Revival design from Brunelleschi’s renowned Foundling Hospital in Florence. Osburg embraced the Art Deco movement in American architecture in designing Depression-era public buildings, including a series of six one-story police district stations built between 1936 and 1938 and four community centers in African-American neighborhoods funded by a 1934 bond issue.

Osburg’s public works masterpiece was the Homer G. Phillips Hospital (1936) in the Ville. Built as the city’s African-American Hospital, Homer G. Phillips was based on an X-shaped plan similar to Osburg’s Malcolm Bliss Psychiatric Hospital at City Hospital (1939). Yet the buildings of Homer G. Phillips Hospital made use of polychrome buff brick, red Missouri granite, geometric buff terra cotta and red clay roof tile to express a style that embraced the modern era while maintaining traditional material craftsmanship.

View toward the Power Plant during the City Hospital modernization project. Credit: Preservation Research Office.
View toward the Power Plant during the City Hospital modernization project.

Osburg’s work at City Hospital maintained the Georgian Revival style established by the earlier buildings, despite the change in architectural fashion that the city embraced with contemporary projects. The Power Plant would be the most modern building in the hospital expansion.

Drawings for the Power Plant bear Osburg’s name, making him the definite designer. He designed an irregularly massed building with a stepped three-story section with attic rising at the east, a low one-story section at the west and a massive brick smokestack at the north end. Details includes:

  • The structure of the building was steel, but the exterior cladding was red brick.
  • The west elevation has rusticated brick, large openings containing multi-light windows (originally steel) and limestone ornamental elements.
  • The four large window openings define the character of the building, and are also found at the first level of the taller eastern section.
  • Above the rusticated first floor on the eastern section, the wall has smaller window openings consistent with earlier hospital buildings, and even keystones above them.
  • Stone cornices run as belts above the first and third levels, and seven brick pilasters with stone capitals frame the eastern wall bays.
  • The irregularly fenestrated south elevation shows the three-step building profile while maintaining the building’s decorative scheme, while the north elevation is informal.

West elevation as drawn on the plans for the Power Plant. Credit: Board of Public Service, City of St. Louis.
West elevation as drawn on the plans for the Power Plant.

And as with any modern industrial building of the era, the contrasting building elements correspond to different functions:

  • The low western section housed a large generating machine room, serviced by an overhead Shaw-Box bridge crane manufactured by Manning, Maxwell & Moore of Muskegon, Michigan.
  • The center section of the building, slightly taller than the west, contained an open boiler hall.
  • The tall eastern section had separated basement and attic levels, with its open main level volume built out with a three-level steel catwalk system around four massive coal hopper structures that were 56 ½” tall.
  • Steel trusses carried the roof spans over the large column-free spaces created in the three sections of the building. The footprint of the building was 89’ 7 ½” by 120’.

All in all, the Power Plant design navigates between a functionalist expression of use and space, as the large windows demonstrate, and an aesthetic reverence toward the traditional Georgian Revival design of the older hospital buildings. Osburg’s navigation is successful, and makes use of contrasting building volumes to unify the artistic divergence through a powerfully shaped mass.

Cross section of Power Plant showing the spatial divisions inside. Credit: Board of Public Service, City of St. Louis.
Cross section of Power Plant showing the spatial divisions inside.

When the new Power Plant went into service in 1937, the hospital expansion was about to be fully underway. The Malcolm Bliss building was nearing completion to the west. Two years later, the new Laundry Building was rising immediately to the west. These new buildings were the first hospital buildings built in the mostly-residential area north of Carroll Street. Across Carroll at the main campus, in 1939 the city had demolished the older surgical and observation wards for construction of the new Tower and Ancillary Services buildings.

Although the city’s recovery from the Great Depression was slow, the modern physical plant of City Hospital was a source of civic pride displayed on popular postcards. The Power Plant was essential to the needs of the expanded facility.

The City Hospital after modernization and expansion in 1941. Credit: Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine
The City Hospital after modernization and expansion in 1941.

As time went on, the city consolidated parcels around City Hospital for future expansion and employee parking. Building permits show that the city started removing the remaining residential buildings from the Power Plant block with a permit issues on April 1, 1959, which allowed the city to remove the dwellings located at 1401-17 St. Ange Avenue.

The city next wrecked dwellings at 1410-20 Dillon Street with a permit issued on June 17, 1964. In 1966, the city spent $20,000 to replace and repair windows on the power plant. At this point, the steel windows in the boiler room facing Dillon Street were replaced with glass block.

The city kept the Power Plant in great condition throughout the hospital’s operation, with constant maintenance and repair. Yet the hospital’s days were coming to an end …

Next week: In Limbo: City Hospital’s Closure and the Unrealized Plan for the Power Plant

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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