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Historic St. John Hospital in Gary faces wrecking ball

Gary plans to demolish the long-abandoned St. John Hospital, which served the city's African-American community during the segregation era.

Another storied chapter in Region history faces demolition.

The city of Gary plans to raze the long-abandoned St. John's Hospital, which was built in 1929 during an era of segregation to serve the city's black community at a time when they were not welcome at "white hospitals." The decrepit hospital building at 22nd Avenue and Massachusetts Street in Midtown had been vacant since it closed in 1950, and was repeatedly named one of Indiana's most endangered buildings by Indiana Landmarks in recent years.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the long-decaying structure was so badly deteriorated that razing it was necessary for safety, since it could potentially collapse.

"No matter how many basketball courts you have in the city, kids want to play somewhere dangerous," she said.

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The city aims to tear down St. John this year, but will try to salvage some of the facade and establish a historic marker to recognize the site's significance, she said.

The roof and part of the second floor of the red-brick building have caved in. Brick is crumbled. Windows are broken and crammed with wooden debris. Overgrowth of trees and shrubbery have been swallowing up what's left of the structure.

"Unfortunately St. John Hospital is in a state that is beyond repair and any efforts to save it would be more appropriately considered a reconstruction," Northwest Indiana Landmarks Director Brad Miller said. "With a building as integral to the identity of Midtown, I do not think that precludes it from preservation efforts, but tragically local efforts never received the extra boost required to get the building stabilized."

St. John Hospital played a crucial role in the city's early days during the 20th century, employing black doctors and nurses to treat the city's black community before hospitals started treating everyone, Miller said.

"It’s amazing when you talk with residents about St. John, because they or family members were literally born there and it’s more powerful when you put that into the context of why it had to exist separate of the city’s primary hospitals because of the racist and segregationist practices that characterized the times," Miller said. "African-American institutions like St. John were part necessity but also part pride in taking care of their own community and offering the medical care every human deserves."

Gary showcased the hospital one last time over the Gary Preservation Tour over the weekend, highlighting how it was also known as the McMitchell Hospital and how it was designed by William Wilson Cooke in the Prairie style with prominent arches.

"The fate of St. John's Hospital is deeply sad," said Claire Nowak-Boyd, an urban planner and former executive director of Preservation Detroit. "Its story is about people taking care of their community and building a proud institution in the face of terrible exclusion. It is also quite rare to find a building of this age that had an architect of color. St. John's Hospital is very special."

Many similar structures have been lost around the country.

"Black history sites can face stiff preservation odds," Nowak-Boyd said. "In many places, historically black areas have been either demolished by urban renewal or drained by decades of ongoing redlining. The community's restricted access to property ownership, loans, and insurance means that buildings with some of the most incredible stories may have relatively humble appearances. They are nonetheless highly significant and important."

Preservation is underfunded everywhere, and Northwest Indiana is no exception, Nowak-Boyd said. It's too late now, but the hospital could have been repurposed at some point, she said.

"Buildings in redlined neighborhoods within redlined cities face an even steeper battle," she said. "I know Gary has many things on its plate, and that the recession took a serious bite out of municipal finances. That said, it would have been amazing for someone to take this on and to create something for a neighborhood that could use more retail activity and community space. St. John's Hospital could have lived again."

 

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.