Thursday, September 12, 2013

After the War: New Uses for Discarded Hospital Buildings


Within a year of the end of the war all three military hospitals shut down. Brattleboro Hospital was first to close. The Agricultural Society of Brattleboro purchased the buildings at a public auction on January
24, 1866, for $3,200, which according to the Free Press was “within a few hundred dollars of the estimated value of the material.” The society also bought the land at a separate auction. The buildings were eventually razed and the site is now occupied by the Brattleboro high school.

On July 17, 1866, the government sold the Burlington hospital buildings for $7,000 to the Home for Destitute Children. Eventually those buildings, too, were razed to make room for a shopping mall on
Shelburne Road. Sloan General Hospital, the last of the Vermont military hospitals to close its doors, ceased operation on December 12, 1865, by which time it had treated 1,670 patients.

On August 7, 1866, with approval from the Vermont legislature, the state sold the Sloan Hospital grounds and buildings for $15,500 to the Vermont Conference Seminary and Female College, which was relocating from Norwich, where it had been known as the Newbury Seminary.

The seminary, later known as the Montpelier Methodist Seminary and Female College and eventually as Vermont College, moved and reused many of the former hospital buildings for dormitories, faculty housing,
recitation rooms, and society rooms. The core of the old hospital grounds became the campus green.

College Hall, the heart of the Vermont College campus today, was constructed on the green in 1872. The
seminary continued to use the hospital chapel at its original location, which in the original plan of the complex was set back from the circle of other hospital buildings, but in the new campus plan was sited opposite the northeast corner of the green. It was torn down to make way for Alumni Hall, a gymnasium constructed in 1936. The hospital water tank also continued in use into the early twentieth century.

The seminary moved several ward buildings, setting them above new first stories to create a large 2-story main dormitory facing the east side of the green. The front was apparently made from one of the longer, twelve-bay wards; two ells, extending to the rear, were adapted from nine-bay wards. A one-story middle ell completed an “E” formation and was used as the kitchen and dining hall for the complex. The main dormitory was taken down to make way for new residence halls in the 1950s.

Many of the other original hospital buildings remain, however. Most of the wards were cut into shorter lengths, usually thirds, removed to nearby lots, and sold for houses. Deed restrictions promoted what the
seminary hoped would be “a good opportunity to establish a community, noted for morality, refinement and religion in close proximity to[the] Seminary.”

Many of the deeds for these “hospital houses” direct that “no intoxicating liquors shall ever be sold on said premises, and that no business or amusements shall ever be carried on or permitted on said premises that are contrary, or which shall be contrary, to good morals, or that are injurious to the community.”

The deeds claim that a property shall revert to the grantor if the conditions are ever violated. The “hospital houses” are recognizable by their 1½ story height, open eaves without cornice returns, high kneewall between the tops of the windows and the eaves, six-over-six sash windows, and characteristic peaked window lintel trim. On their long eaves side, the buildings are generally three bays wide, with a central door substituted for what was formerly a middle window. The gable ends may display the original central door typical of the ward sections closest to the circular walkway.

If the house came from the rear section of a ward, it may retain all the windows or a side door from the original building together with one new gable-end wall. Houses created out of the middle section of a ward
have two new gable ends. Some of the other hospital buildings also became houses. In all, fifteen reported “hospital houses” still exist today in the vicinity of the Vermont College green and more may be identified. They represent a unique legacy of Civil War history.

The proliferation of military hospitals throughout the nation during the war served many purposes. Not least of these was alleviating the overcrowded conditions at hospitals in and around Washington, D.C. More significant was promoting a high rate of recovery among soldiers who were sick or wounded but not maimed or permanently disabled by their injuries. As the war dragged on and recruitment of new soldiers
became increasingly difficult and encountered increasing resistance and resentment, the successful treatment and return to active duty of some of the military force became increasingly important.

It is clear that Governor Holbrook’s “experiment” helped launch significant changes in the U.S. Army’s planning and use of medical facilities. In contrast with medical practices in the field that with rare exceptions remained primitive, dangerous, and largely ineffective throughout the war, the rapid development of the design and operation of the army general hospitals contributed significantly to their success in treating patients.

What Lincoln and Stanton originally dismissed as an inexpedient, impracticable, and “unmilitary innovation” doubtless helped them win the war and doubtless saved the lives of many New England soldiers.


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