This is a 7-part Instagram series on the US Marine Hospital, authored by Danny Seim. Enjoy!
Even though the US Marine hospital has already been featured multiple times in this feed, it still deserves more attention. The following is a seven-part miniseries devoted to this historic architectural cornerstone of our community. We'll start things off with some background info from the very informative www.marinehospital.org:
In 1837, Congress authorized the construction of the U.S. Marine Hospital in Louisville
“for the benefit of sick seamen, boatmen, and other navigators on the western rivers and lakes.”
By the 1840s, steamboats dominated river traffic and were the major factor in the growth and development of industry.
The hospital’s site, midway between the Louisville and Portland wharves, was selected for the
“beneficial effect of a view of the water, and the impressions and associations it would naturally awake in the minds of men whose occupation were so intimately connected with it.”
The boatmen served by the hospital worked difficult and dangerous jobs. Injuries due to engine or boiler explosions, wrecks, collisions with river snags and freight handling were common dangers. Exposure to extremes of temperature, from the sub-tropic heat of the Mississippi delta to frigid Great Lakes, claimed victims.
Diseases affecting the boatmen included yellow fever, cholera, smallpox and malaria. While docked in the rough port towns of the time, violence, alcoholism and social diseases sent many boatmen to the marine hospitals.
In the early days, 20 cents a month was withheld from their salaries to pay the boatmen’s share of their healthcare in marine hospitals, with the federal government also providing support. This was the first example of pre-paid health insurance in American history.
All classifications of river workers were eligible for treatment. Every mariner, including pilots, captains, cooks, pursers, engineers, stevedores, roustabouts and deckhands, were eligible for treatment and care. It is estimated that one-third of the patients were African Americans.
The Marine Hospital Service was the genesis of America’s modern health care system and is responsible for major improvements in research, hygiene and science-based medical treatment.
The building was designed by architectRobert Mills - a protégé of Thomas Jefferson - who designed the Washington Monument and several other prominent structures. It was a cutting-edge facility in the day, with indoor plumbing and an air circulation system that helped prevent infections.
Fresh air was as an important factor in the patient's recovery as the view of the Ohio River was. Large sleeping porches flank each floor of the hospital on both the front and back of the building. Many old photos exist of bedridden patients being attended to by the medical staff on these outdoor decks.
Nowadays, the view of river has been replaced by the view of I-64 cutting across the landscape. It's an unfortunate sign of the times, but it gives the hospital the distinction of being one of the first things motorists see when traveling into Louisville. Here's a view of modern traffic through yesteryear's ornate wrought-iron railing.
"The feature of the hospital which more than anything else reminds me of a ship is the cupola, which greatly resembles the pilothouse of a steamboat. It is made nearly entirely out of glass, and commands a magnificent view of the river and the city.
When an old boatman becomes convalescent after a long illness, he takes great pleasure in climbing the steps to this tower and watching the movements of the boats on the river. Some of them have been known to sit there for days, dreaming, smoking and thinking..."
- Louisville Times, October 1903
As with the outdoor decks and porches, the river scenery is obscured by the interstate these days. Still, it's a spectacular panoramic view nonetheless. The cupola and the hardwood spiral staircase leading up to it were completely restored a decade ago. Light pours in through the antique windows, and it's easy to imagine feeling rehabilitated up there.
The medical term "resident" originally referred to young physicians who completed their studies while living in America's early hospitals. From 1953 until 1974, the Marine Hospital was a home for local medical students who received room, board and small stipends to work with patients in the same building.
The old resident bedrooms make up much of the hospital's second floor. Here is the current state of one of the many small bathrooms.
Recognizing the need for a more modern facility and as an economic stimulus to provide jobs during the Great Depression, a new 100-bed facility was built behind the original Marine Hospital in 1933. The old hospital was converted into quarters for nurses, medical officers and pharmacists. When constructing the new facility - now known as Portland Family Health Center - a new boiler system serving both old and new hospitals was installed in the basement of the Marine Hospital. This decision helped preserve the original building by extending its usefulness.
This is the boiler room. Heavy sliding doors on two of the walls helped insulate the passages to the morgue, which was stocked weekly with bricks of ice to keep the corpses from decomposing.
The basement morgue is the stuff horror film sets are made of. The stale air is thick with the weight of not only the decaying 25,000 square foot structure above, but also the weight of knowing what this specific area was once used for. The ceiling feels much lower than it actually is. All the light bulbs have long been either broken or burned out, and the only dim illumination comes from small windows high along the perimeter walls. The vast majority of the morgue is kept in perpetual darkness. Dust particles flicker wildly when a flashlight is turned on, and archaic medical equipment appears out of nowhere in the beam.
Regardless of this stereotypical haunted house setting, the atmosphere is more solemn than scary. Most of the patients who wound up down here came to the hospital hoping to eventually walk out the front doors on their own accord. Despite the expert care provided above, they somehow ended up below.
In 1997, the Marine Hospital was granted status as a National Historic Landmark, and in 2003, it was awarded "Save America's Treasures" status by the National Parks Service. The extensive exterior renovations began in 2004, returning the weathered, crumbling brick to its original painted grey, and reattaching the massive window shutters with their original antique hinges. A new roof was installed by the same workers who renovated the nearby McAlpine Locks, in 2009.
Here is one of the ground floor rooms that was restored and decorated to look like it did over a century ago, complete with a display case of antique whiskey bottles that were used as an anesthetic back in the day.
In closing, here's an excerpt from a recent piece on WDRB.com:
Because the outside is restored, Family Health Centers Executive Director Bill Wagner says many people believe the inside is in good shape, too.
"Little do they know, it's empty," said Wagner.
Though several proposals have been submitted to the general assembly, Wagner says attempts to make the inside look as good as the outside have failed.
"Up until now we just haven't been fortunate enough to raise the five to six million dollars we need to refinish the interior," said Wagner.
The latest proposal calls for a collaboration between Family Health Centers, JCTC and U of L to create a Center for Health Education and Training. However, Wagner says many private donors want to see public support first. "We're disappointed. We thought the building would be restored to use by now."
He says they are more than willing to consider other proposals if interest is shown.