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The 'Bittersweet Progress' Of The Demolition Of St. Louis' Old Jewish Hospital

On May 16, 1901, workers laid the cornerstone for a new hospital committed to caring for the St. Louis Jewish community when other institutions wouldn’t.

Exactly 26 years later, on May 16, 1927, officials gathered to dedicate the first building of a new Jewish Hospital at the corner of Kingshighway and Forest Park. The complex would eventually become part of Barnes-Jewish Hospital following a 1995 merger.

The four buildings are among the last physical connections to a health care institution that nurtured thousands of doctors and nurses, some of whom could not train elsewhere. But that connection will soon be severed as well.

"It's a bittersweet moment."

It's tough to hear Barnes-Jewish hospital president Richard Liekweg over the cacophony of dozens of happy reunions.

It's the first time many crammed into the lobby here at 216 South Kingshighway have stepped foot inside the main Jewish Hospital building in years, and they're eager to share memories of their time here before it, along with two other buildings in the complex, meets the wrecking ball later this year. (The demolition was approved in March).

"I'm happy the people in the front are listening," Liekweg jokes, over a few half-hearted attempts to hush the crowd. "As you know, today is a very special day. I was kidding the facility folks, I think they may have already turned off the air conditioning in this building. They're one step ahead of us."

Karen Schmidt, an OB-GYN nurse, is in the front row with some long-time friends from nursing school. She worked here for 17 years before moving to Missouri Baptist Hospital in 1991, and says despite the stuffiness, she got chills walking up the front steps.

"As we stand here in the hall, we used to pick our paychecks up right down the hall there," she says. "The first person I saw was the old director of nursing. There used to be an ice cream shop as you walked through the front door. My children would come here and have meals with me when I worked on holidays and weekends. It was a very wonderful hospital. It's a bittersweet moment but, you know, progress."

The next five years

As the vice president of ancillary services for BJC Healthcare, Don Lichti is in charge of the latest construction planned for the medical campus. In what’s expected to be a five-year project, three of the old Jewish Hospital buildings will be replaced by a new patient tower with more private rooms, and an expanded Children’s Hospital. A fourth, newer building will remain. 

Credit (Photo courtesy of Barnes-Jewish Hospital)
This photo illustration by Barnes-Jewish Hospital outlines the three buildings to be demolished.

Lichti says planners could not find a way to save the old structures.

"What we're trying to do is enhance the ability to take care of our patients in a better way," he says. "Old facilities cannot accommodate new technologies. This is a very compact campus. We need to have the space for beds and for clinical use, so to have office space just right there was not an appropriate use of that space."

Lichti says BJC is working with the Jewish community to preserve religious artifacts and donor recognition plaques. Jewish Hospital will also remain in the name, an exciting thing for Andrew Rehfeld, the president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

"To have that marker, to have that public recognition of the value of taking care of the sick in a very public way is in some ways the most important legacy of a hospital that used to exist," he says.

Credit (Photos Courtesy of Barnes-Jewish Hospital)
These two photos, at left from the mid-20th century, and, at right, from the early 21st century, show the evolution of what is now the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Campus in that short time. The skyline will look quite different in five years.

The legacy of Jewish Hospital

The first donors recognized on those plaques had names like Stix, Baer, Fuller and May. They wanted to build a place where Jewish doctors and patients could avoid anti-Semitism.

Martin Bergmann needed a place like that as he looked for training opportunities after graduating from Washington University Medical School in 1945.

"There was still significant prejudice in all of medicine," he says. "When I started medical school, we were told they would take 10 percent Jews and 10 percent women." He says he felt comfortable applying to just two hospitals - Michael Reese in Chicago, and Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

Bergmann chose Jewish, and would spend more than 50 years there as a doctor and even a patient before retiring in 1998. Though he says the buildings are nothing to sorrow over, something is definitely lost with their demolition.

"It was a Jewish institution, and Barnes-Jewish Hospital is certainly not that," he says.

Looking forward

Back inside the stuffy foyer of a building that nurtured the careers of Bergmann and others like him, Barnes-Jewish president Rich Liekweg says the change in the hospital’s physical footprint won’t alter its ultimate mission and strengths. 

"The time has come, as it has come often in the last 100 years, to renew this space." - Barnes-Jewish Hospital president Richard Liekweg

"It’s not the physical space that necessarily represents our culture. It’s the people," he says. "And so the time has come as it has come often in the last 100 years to renew this space."

This latest renewal begins in the fall. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.