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

Posted on: January 23rd, 2013 by Michael R. Allen

Part 3 of our guest series on the remarkable transformation of a hospital power plant in St. Louis. Last week detailed how the hospital complex modernized over the first half of the 20th century; today's post explores how the second half brought closure and neglect. Read the series to date.

The Power Plant’s windows were missing by 1994. Credit: Preservation Research Office
The Power Plant’s windows were missing by 1994.

The closure of Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1979, along with gradual cutbacks in Saint Louis and Washington University medical student interns, increased the burden on City Hospital. Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl, Jr. set up an Acute Care Task Force to study the hospital in 1983, strongly hinting that he wanted to see the hospital closed. Frustrated, the task force soon voted themselves out of existence.

That same year, Schoemehl told the Saint Louis Globe-Democrat, "We are shooting for a November 1st [1983] close date. City Hospital is finally so far out of repair that it cannot continue to operate." But others, especially African-American members of the board of aldermen, balked at the idea of shutting down the city’s last public hospital.

The Power Plant sits vacant in 1992. Credit: Preservation Research Office
The Power Plant sits vacant in 1992.

Although the hospital didn't close until June 1985, Schoemehl eventually got his way. The city and county became partners in a new hospital, St. Louis Regional Medical Center at 5535 Delmar Boulevard. For a year after City Hospital's closure, the clinic at the old hospital operated during working hours on weekdays.

In June 1986, the city opened bids for the hospital. Pantheon Corporation, the flagship of Fox Theater developer Leon Strauss, bought the hospital by beating out other offers, including one from homeless advocate Reverend Larry Rice, who wanted to turn the complex into a center for the homeless. Pantheon planned a mixed-use development with condominiums as the main use of the property, but had difficulty getting the project started.

The Power Plant can be seen at left of this view of the abandoned City Hospital complex in 2000. Credit: Landmarks Association of St. Louis
The Power Plant can be seen at left of this view of the abandoned City Hospital complex in 2000.

Despite the conditions at the hospital building that made renovation difficult, the Power Plant’s physical condition remained excellent. Based on evidence suggesting that the facility could remain in use, the city sold the Power Plant separately from the rest of the complex.

Trigen Energy Corporation purchased the power plant from the City of St. Louis in 1986, and planned to convert the facility into a steam plant serving downtown St. Louis. Those plans were never realized, and Trigen eventually purchased the larger Ashley Street Power House (1903) on the north riverfront while returning the City Hospital Power Plant to the City of St. Louis.

Cupolas stripped and walls tagged with graffiti, the Administration Building sits vacant in 2001. Credit: Preservation Research Office
With its cupolas stripped and walls tagged with graffiti, the Administration Building sits vacant in 2001.

For the next few years, City Hospital sat empty (except for trespassers). Vandals began sacking the hospital for all of its valuable copper: pipes, wiring, and, of course, the decorative cupolas on the roofs of the Administration and Ward buildings. By late 1988, most of the copper was missing from the cupolas, which stood on the roofs of five-story buildings. The Power Plant was relatively secure through this period.

In 1992, Pantheon’s successor returned the City Hospital to the city’s Land Reutilization Authority. The city considered many options for the complex, including demolition.

The interior of the Power Plant in 2004. Credit: Preservation Research Office
The interior of the Power Plant in 2004.

Then, in 1999, the city assigned redevelopment rights to the City Hospital Redevelopment Corporation, which proposed a $28.2 million renovation that preserved all of the hospital’s historic buildings except the Tower and the Malcolm Bliss buildings. In 2001, City Hospital was listed in the National Register of Historic Places -- a designation that honored the institution’s social and medical history while making state and federal historic tax credits available.

By 2004, renovation of the Administration Building and ward wings was underway, with other buildings following…

Next week: The Power Plant Renovation: Imagination Becomes Adaptation

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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