ecology of absence

A Short History of Homer G. Phillips Hospital

by Michael R. Allen

Posted February 22, 2005

Struggle and racial oppression have defined the Homer G. Phillips Hospital since its creation as City Hospital #2 in 1919. Thus, the significance of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital cannot be considered apart from Mayor James Conway’s disastrous decision to close it in 1979 and Mayor Vincent Schoemehl’s subsequent acts to not only renege on his promise to reopen the north side landmark but to also close the city’s other municipal general hospital, City Hospital. Nor can the significance be realized apart from the history of racial segregation in the US and in St. Louis that eventually kept African-American Saint Louisans from being able to use even the meager offerings of the City Hospital. One cannot ignore the fierce and successful fight by African-Americans to open a public hospital where they could get adequate treatment, their efforts to make the hospital a nationally-recognized teaching hospital and their bold attempts to keep it from closing.

The hospital is not simply a graceful example of Art Deco architecture; it is a site for political and racial contestation that has yet to be resolved in St. Louis, a city whose history seems to repeat itself vigorously. Currently, Schoemehl is a member of the St. Louis Board of Education who has pushed through the closings of schools -- most in black neighborhoods -- despite vocal opposition from African-American St. Louis. The Homer G. Phillips Hospital, however, has rebounded from this narrative and is no longer abandoned. In 2004, it reopened as the Homer G. Phillips Dignity House, a residential care facility for the elderly, finally forestalling efforts to reopen it but once again defying the forces of ethnocentrism and power that could very well have kept it vacant for decades as well as the force of economic gentrification that hit the once-abandoned City Hospital in the form of a condominium project that aims to erase the public history of that institution. The hospital's recovery is not surprising in light of its role in struggle, though. The buildings have become intensely-loved symbols of African-American knowledge and welfare, signifying a time when black St. Louis took care of itself by developing a grand medical institution that existed for public welfare and social betterment. Many people would have fought to save Homer G. Phillips Hospital from the wrecking ball, if it had ever been threatened with demolition.

Who was Homer G. Phillips?

On June 18, 1931, a 51-year-old lawyer woke at 7:00 a.m., had breakfast, and left his residence at 1121 Aubert Avenue. He walked southward on Aubert to Delmar Avenue at 7:45 a.m. He was headed to the streetcar, which he would take to his offices at 23 North Jefferson Avenue. His punctuality and strict time schedules were part of his style on which his partners and friends could always count.

He decided to stop and buy a newspaper to read on the streetcar. While he waited for his streetcar, he started to read his paper. As he perused the articles, two men approached and the first man spoke to him. He lowered his paper to say something in return, and the second man struck him in the face, then he drew an automatic pistol which he used to fire several shots into the lawyer. The second man and his friend ran northward into an alley and vanished. Of course, later they were apprehended for the lawyer's slaying. The police released the men due to lack of evidence, and the murder was never solved.

The lawyer was a prominent St. Louis political figure, yet he never held or ran for public office. He stood as a die-hard Republican, but he once campaigned against the GOP ticket for Mayor because of his resentment of the candidate. This lawyer was one Homer Gilliam Phillips, who was born in Sedalia, Missouri in 1880. He was the son of a Methodist minister, but he was orphaned while he was very young and he had to be raised by an aunt. His interest in law led him to Howard Law School in Washington, D. C. where he lived in the home of black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. While still in Washington, he briefly worked at the Justice Department.

When he returned to Missouri, he settled in St. Louis and became active in local politics, where he supported Louis P. Aloe and opposed Victor Miller in the 1925 GOP primary. Miller won, and Phillips supported Democrat William Igoe in the general election. In the next primary, he supported former Mayor Henry Kiel.

Three years earlier, he supported the popular $87 million bond issue of 1922. His primary role in the bond issue was to secure at least $1 million for the sole purpose of constructing a new hospital for blacks on the city's North Side. While the bond issue passed on election day, city officials wanted to construct a "colored annex" at City Hospital rather than building a separate hospital for the black community – a basic separate-but-equal idea indicative of the city's prevalent racism. Phillips fought this idea and eventually spoke on the matter before the Board of Aldermen. He gained support of a majority of members of the Welfare Committee for legislation to create a fully-funded new black hospital in north city. Strong opposition from white city leaders followed, but eventually the full Board authorized placing construction of the new facility on the $87 million 1923 bond issue docket.

From City Hospital #2 to "Homer G."

While the later attempt at a community hospital was very successful, it came only after an earlier try at a full-service general hospital to serve the black community's needs. Around the turn of the century, black taxpayers were angry at city government because their tax dollars went to support hospitals where only white medical workers could be trained. So, in 1914, a group of seventeen black doctors lead by Dr. C. K. Robinson convinced city officials to purchase the vacant former Barnes Hospital at Lawton and Garrison Streets. The purpose of such a hospital was obvious: to serve the blacks not allowed at the segregated City Hospital. The city government named this hospital “City Hospital #2,” a name whose implication of inferiority infuriated black doctors.

Opened in 1919 with Dr. Roscoe Haskell as Superintendent, the 177-bed unit was overcrowded and outdated by 1921. The committee of black doctors re-organized and began to fight for a new hospital. This fight grew into a large effort that proved successful in the 1923 with the voters' approval of the entire bond docket. Yet construction did not begin until 1932, nearly ten years after the bond issue's passage. This slight was certainly not the most egregious example of obstruction of the hospital’s progress by white politicians, though.

The fight to create the new hospital led to a stunning reward: a gloriously modern Art Deco complex designed by city architect Albert Osburg. The complex, located in the Ville neighborhood, consisted of a central X-shaped administration and medical building with an accompanying nurses' residence and school behind it. (Municipal nurses' training was also segregated.) The buildings demonstrated a great sensitivity to neighborhood scale, standing at only six stories high at a time when hospital design was tending toward tall, boxy buildings (such as Osburg’s later Tower Building at City Hospital in 1941). The hospital's location at 2601 Whittier Street in the Ville neighborhood placed it in the heart of the city's growing black population center. It attracted many skilled black physicians and nurses, many of whom came from the surrounding neighborhoods, who could feel proud to work in their community hospital. When it finally opened in 1937, it was named for its prominent supporter, the late Homer G. Phillips.

For decades after opening, the hospital developed as one of the nation’s pre-eminent African-American hospitals. Its staff -- all black for many years -- was dedicated to both the hospital and the advancement of medicine, and came from all over the country. Young black doctors fought to train at Homer G. Phillips. Patient care was probably superior to that offered by City Hospital, despite continual budget cuts and slights from the Board of Aldermen. While struggles to gain financial resources remained, Homer G. Phillips Hospital was a remarkable achievement for black St. Louis and people cared for it dearly.

All of this achievement was to be relatively short-lived.

Sudden death

Throughout the 1960's, the city's municipal hospital system underwent rapid change and intense criticism. First of all, the hospital system was desegregated -- but this meant practically nothing at that point because the white population in the city was dwindling fast and was very low on the north side. Yet when the city applied for Medicaid enrollment for its hospitals in 1966, Medicaid administrators criticized Phillips for not accepting more white patients and for its lack of senior white doctors. The Washington University School of Medicine, which had placed doctors at Phillips following desegregation, soon decided to consolidate its teaching operations at City Hospital. Phillips and City Hospital consolidated their nursing schools -- at City Hospital.

By the end of the 1960's, inpatient and outpatient figures for both Phillips and City Hospital were appallingly low. Even the low-income citizens were seeking better care than the cash-starved municipal hospitals could provide. Rather than study increasing funding for these institutions -- which were still vital as many private hospitals had relocated far from the city -- the Board of Aldermen considered schemes to consolidate the two municipal hospitals.

As with the nursing school consolidation, the only option seriously considered by the aldermen and by the Department of Health and Hospitals was closing Homer G. Phillips and placing all patients at the older City Hospital. Although government officials denied race played any role in their decision, their denials carry less weight in light of semi-secret policy from that time. In the late 1960’s, a war on urban minority populations was brewing: federal policies favoring depleting inner city infrastructure developed at this time along with their local summation, the Team Four plan for north St. Louis, a scary document advocating the forcible abandonment of north city for eventual clearance and redevelopment. The Phillips hospital was helping to hold together a part of St. Louis many leaders wanted to disassemble.

After some remodeling, including two additions that blocked portions of the beautiful facade of the hospital, the city government acted in concert with white Mayor James Conway to close the hospital in 1979. Prior to and after the closure, heated protests at the hospital took place daily. North city did not want to lose the one public resource its people had created for themselves in desperate times. Yet the city government would not reconsider the closure.

In 1981, a young alderman named Vincent Schoemehl (D-28th Ward) ran for mayor in the Democratic primary against Conway on a platform that included reopening Phillips Hospital. Schoemehl attracted widespread black support and beat Conway. After easily carrying the general election and being inaugurated, Schoemehl established a task force to study reopening Phillips. Some Schoemehl supporters were confused by this move, which seemed to be a step back from a clear campaign promise.

Schoemehl waited awhile and eventually announced that he no longer favored the supposedly overly-costly move of reopening Homer G. Phillips Hospital. Within two years, Schoemehl launched a successful effort to close City Hospital, too. He joined St. Louis County in creating a consolidated public hospital in the suburb or Clayton, a good distance from both Phillips and City Hospital. Not only was mostly-black north city robbed of its hospital, but the changing south side (becoming more black and more poor) and the entire city lost its hospital, too. A similar wave of closures happened nationwide under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who was altering federal funding programs to gut urban healthcare and education. Opportunistic mayors were only glad to help. The nation was on the move -- for the wealthy and well-connected.

Saving Homer G. Phillips Hospital

Black leaders tried to revive Homer G. Phillips Hospital, imagining a private hospital or other healthcare entity assuming operation of the complex so that badly-needed services could return to the north side. These plans limped along with little success. In 1982, Landmarks Association successfully nominated the complex to the National Register of Historic Places. And in 1988, developer William Thomas came forward with a plan for turning much of the former hospital into a nursing home, to be called Homer Phillips Dignity House. However, he failed to sign a 99-year lease on the property and he lost his bid. Thomas was later barred from participating in projects involving federal money because he has failed to pay off several loans from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for other projects.

Two small victories came in the 1990's: In 1991, the city Department of Health decided to re-open the former clinic addition as an Ambulatory Care Center that remains open to this day. Also, the former Nurses' Residence behind the main building was renovated by the Annie Malone Children's Home for low-income housing.

The larger victory -- reopening of the landmark main building and ward wings -- came slowly and steadily. Thomas, like many others, continued to work against the odds to reopen the hospital. In time, his daughter Sharon Thomas Robnett took over the efforts to renovate Homer G. Phillips Hospital and signed the long-planned 99-year lease in 2000. She financed a $42 million renovation that started in December 2001 and ended in July 2003. Once again, the building served a northside human need: housing the elderly. The result is a 220-unit Homer G. Phillips Dignity House, which provides apartments and supervised care for elderly people whose income is at least 60% below the city’s median income. Rents range from $355 to $665 per month.

The building was restored carefully, although in 22 years of vacancy had not acquired as much damage as the City Hospital did in its 17 years of vacancy. Perhaps few vandals would harm such a renowned building. Perhaps people kept a closer eye on the beloved hospital. At any rate, the building retains its striking geometry, expressed through a subtle palette of earth-toned bricks, buff terra cotta and red clay roofing tiles. Unfortunately, the later emergency room addition still blocks the first two floors of the central building’s facade, but that is the only flaw in a dazzling renovation. The building, born and reborn through struggle, has emerged with a gentle beauty nonetheless. If only the whole city could follow.

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