Louisville’s U.S. Marine Hospital: A unique historic landmark

The only remaining U.S. Marine Hospital out of the seven commissioned by the United States Government in 1845.

One of my favorite things to do is visit historic buildings. There really isn’t a way to replicate the feeling you get when you see for yourself how things were in different times.

The U.S. Marine Hospital in Louisville is one of those places. I recently took a trip to this historic landmark and thought that I would share some unique facts about the building and it’s history.

  • The Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital was one of 7 hospitals commissioned by the government in 1845.
  • The hospital was designed by Robert Wells, the same man that designed the Washington Monument.
  • The Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital opened in 1852.
  • In 2003 the hospital was named one of the ‘Eleven Most Endangered Places’ according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
  • Today, the Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital is the only one of the seven that remains.

History of Marine Hospitals

Before the Revolution, American sailors paid into a fund called ‘The British Seaman’s Hospital Fund.’ The problem was that the funding all went to one institution in Greenwhich, that many sailors would never use.

In 1798, the United States government enacted a law that required ship owners to pay a monthly tax of 20 cents per sailor under their employment. This money was used by the United States Treasury to build proper healthcare facilities along the nation’s now busy waterways. The fund was also used to contract care in places where hospital care was not accessible. This new tax was extended in 1799 to include Navy personnel.

By 1802, the United States operated 4 marine hospitals, but was still paying third parties in major cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York to take care of patients.

During the first half of the 1800’s most of the Governments healthcare efforts were focused primarily along the eastern seaboard. But by the 1840’s, it was clear that the Great Lakes, Mississippi and Ohio corridors were lacking medical facilities. In 1845, the Federal Government commissioned seven Marine Hospitals spread out, but near these waterways. The locations of the seven hospitals were strategically placed across six states:

  • Pittsburgh Pennsylvania
  • Cleveland Ohio
  • Louisville Kentucky
  • Paducah Kentucky
  • Saint Louis Missouri
  • Natchez Mississippi
  • Napoleon Arkansas

Construction

The building features several balconies lined with beautiful wrought iron railings.

The hospital was designed by Robert Wells ( the same man who designed the Washington Monument) and was constructed between 1845 and 1852. It was one of the seven hospitals commissioned (before the civil war) by the ‘Marine Hospital Service’ for the benefit of sick seamen including people from boats on rivers and lakes.

The Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital was considered state of the art at the time and featured indoor plumbing and an open air construction, which was thought to help keep germs to a minimum. The building is over 25,000 square feet and includes a basement where the morgue was located. The buildings second floor has several large balconies and was where patients rooms were located.

Early Usage

The hospital opened in 1852 and serviced patients from the Ohio River and the local area. Typical ailments of the day were fevers, injuries suffered while working on the river and various diseases.

Civil War

During the Civil War the hospital was largely inactive but was used for injured Union soldiers as well as captured Confederate soldiers.

Post Civil War

In 1869 Mother Mary Ignatius Walker and five other ‘Sisters of Mercy” came to Louisville to run the Hospital. The hospital only had a handful of patients when the sisters arrived but by 1871 it was the busiest in the region. The hospitals patient count swelled to over 100, many times more than that of similar hospitals in New Orleans and Saint Louis.

The Sisters of Mercy operated the hospital for almost seven years until 1875 when the Marine Hospital Service re-established the Hospital.

The Sisters of Mercy were highly respected throughout the community and in 1885 they founded the prestigious all girls school Mercy Academy.

World War One

During World War One the hospital primarily cared for soliders with amputations.

Post World War One

After the war the hospital was deemed to small and served as housing for medical workers during construction of a new facility right behind the original one. In 1933 the building closed for good but the basement was converted to a boiler room for the new hospital, which sat mere yards away.

The New Hospital

The new hospital opened in 1933 and still serves as a healthcare facility today.

In 1933 the new hospital opened about 50 yards to the south of the original Marine hospital. The original Marine Hospital dwarfs in comparison to the new structure, but has a certain charm that the new towering building failed to replicate. Today the newer building still serves as a healthcare facility for the residents of the Portland neighborhood.

The U.S. Marine Hospital today

After closing in 1933 the building served as the boiler room for the new hospital for several decades. Then the building sat vacant and deteriorated over a number of years. In 2003 the hospital was declared a national landmark after being called one of the nations ‘Eleven Most Endangered Places’ according to the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Shortly after being placed on the list the National Park Service granted the building “Save America’s Treasures’ status. The parks then issued a check to the city of Louisville for $375,000, to be applied to the buildings restoration. The plan called for the removal of a smokestack that had been added to the building and the demolition of several small structures nearby. The goal was to make the old hospital look as close to the original structure as possible. The funds were also used to hire the same company to restore the wrought iron railings that installed them in 1850.

Since 2004, the building has undergone further renovations and has been painted to look like it did in the early 1900’s. The hospital was also given a new roof sometime over the past 15 years. As of 2020, the property remains fenced off and the restoration of the interior has yet to be finished because the project needs a further five or six million dollars in funding to complete.

Several ideas have been considered for future use of the old hospital including a welcome center for the state of Kentucky because of it’s close proximity to interstate 64. Another proposal would renovate the basement that was once a morgue into a ballroom that could be rented out for events by the public. Most recently it was rumored that the University of Louisville had reached out to city officials about turning the old hospital into a health care facility. However, none of the proposed plans have been agreed on or most importantly funded as of 2020.

Having been past this property several times throughout my life I feel like I should have taken the time to learn more about the property before now. I had no idea that the building had served for so many years and shaped so many lives. The fact that the Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital is the best example of an Antebellum style hospital and was a precursor to the nation’s healthcare system as we know it today, definitely makes the place worth the visit.

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