Jefferson Davis Hospital


By: Allison Taffet

Type: General Entry

Published: February 22, 2022

Updated: February 22, 2022


Jefferson Davis Hospital, a prominent public charity hospital in Houston, operated from 1925 to 1989. It first opened on Elder Street and later moved to Buffalo Drive (now Allen Parkway) in 1938. The building on Elder continued to be used for various purposes until 1985 and still stood in the 2020s. In 1963 Ben Taub Hospital opened as a replacement, but Jefferson Davis remained open as a specialty hospital until its closure in 1989. The hospitals were first run jointly by the city of Houston and Harris County before becoming part of the Harris County Hospital District (now the Harris Health System). The creation of the hospital district was largely a response to activism against the deplorable conditions and funding issues at Jefferson Davis.

Houston, through the instigation and support of the Harris County Medical Society, passed a resolution to build a charity hospital in 1914, but one did not open until 1919 at the Camp Logan barracks. Named the Municipal Hospital, the facility had forty beds but cared for up to sixty patients and often used donated equipment and supplies. After a few years, crowding prompted the construction of a new hospital. The Jefferson Davis Memorial Hospital was built in 1924 on the grounds of the 1840 Houston City Cemetery and without any extensive or systematic removal of the graves. Designed by architect Wilkes Alfred Dowdy in the Classical Revival style, the hospital was named to honor the Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery. Financed by both the city and county, the new hospital opened on April 6, 1925, with a capacity of approximately 150 patients and had segregated wards for Black patients.

Soon, however, patients were being turned away because of lack of space, and plans to build a new, bigger hospital were underway in 1930. The new hospital, designed by architects Alfred C. Finn and Joseph Finger, was built as a Public Works Administration project in the Moderne style on Buffalo Drive. The hospital opened in 1938 at a cost of $2.5 million and had 500 beds.

When the new Jefferson Davis opened, the chairman of the hospital management, Ben Taub, opposed the sale of the old Jefferson Davis hospital on Elder Street. It served various functions until the 1980s and first held a welfare board-operated convalescent ward with forty-two beds for the elderly and a clinic for patients with venereal diseases. In 1947 a convalescent hospital opened on the first floor of the old hospital with about fifty beds for patients from the new Jefferson Davis Hospital who were no longer acute but not yet ready for discharge. In 1953 the Institute of Restorative Medicine was established in the old hospital with donated funds. The hospital served as a storage facility from the 1960s to the 1980s and then was abandoned.

Jefferson Davis was a teaching hospital and had been training nurses since its beginning in 1925. In partnership with Prairie View A&M College, the hospital accepted African American students into the nursing training program by 1948 and was reportedly the first hospital to do so in Texas. Other educational programs included a medical technology program begun in collaboration with University of Houston in 1943. After Baylor College of Medicine moved to Houston in 1943, many of the Jefferson Davis physicians became Baylor faculty, and medical students trained in the hospital. In 1949, after a meeting between Ben Taub of Jefferson Davis and Michael DeBakey of Baylor, the hospital became officially affiliated with Baylor College of Medicine.

Jefferson Davis Hospital expanded as Houston’s population continued to grow. In 1949 a new thirty-bed building was planned, intended to be a convalescent ward. Instead, it was expanded to be a fifty-five-bed, two-story building that became the home for the Southwestern Poliomyelitis Respiratory Center in 1951. The center had begun through a collaboration between Jefferson Davis Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine, and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis for polio treatment, research, and education. In 1949 an enlarged heart clinic opened, and a pediatric outpatient clinic and psychiatric ward opened in 1952. The Houston Tuberculosis Hospital became part of Jefferson Davis Hospital in 1956. Due to overcrowding, sixteen newborns died from Staphylococcal infections in early 1958, spurring the additions later in 1958 of a new maternity annex and a unit for premature infants, the first Newborn Intensive Care Unit in the Southwest. The hospital was further renovated in 1959.

Issues of crowding and lack of funding and resources plagued the hospital. In 1949 an outpatient clinic designed to serve 200 patients was attempting to serve 600. Discussions of expansion in 1949 led to the suggestion of a new hospital in the Texas Medical Center. This new hospital, named after Ben Taub, opened in 1963 after years of delay over funding issues and controversy. Patients from Jefferson Davis were transferred there. Afterwards, Jefferson Davis held pulmonary, psychiatric, and tuberculosis clinics, but it was primarily a maternity hospital. In 1979 Jefferson Davis Hospital delivered the second highest number of babies of any hospital in the United States. It also later housed an AIDS clinic.

The improvements made at the hospital largely involved citizen activism. From 1938 onwards, volunteers called Women in Yellow served at Jefferson Davis. The most famous report on Jefferson Davis was written by a hospital volunteer, Jan de Hartog, who initially published a letter in the April 21, 1963, edition of the Houston Chronicle and detailed the appalling conditions he observed at Jefferson Davis. He later wrote about his experiences in his book The Hospital. Newspapers had been reporting on the overcrowding and lack of resources, calling it a “health menace,” ten years before Jan de Hartog’s reporting. After De Hartog’s front page letter in the Chronicle in 1963, public outcry sped up the opening of Ben Taub Hospital and cancellation of budget cuts. An audit was attempted, but insufficient hospital records made it impossible. The Hospital was published in 1964 and discussed the persistence of the problems and the insufficiency of the new hospital, despite public appeasement. The following years saw confirmation of the conditions and the lack of change by hospital staff. However, one lasting change was the establishment in late 1965 of the Harris County Hospital District, which established a permanent budget for the public hospitals. It had failed to pass in 1955, 1957, and 1961, but the week after De Hartog’s letter was published, editorials in the Houston Chronicle called for its creation. Even still, it failed to pass in January 1965 before passing that November.

Jefferson Davis closed on June 3, 1989. The building, along with the newer Ben Taub Hospital, had problems with fire code compliance after the codes changed, and in 1982 Houston fire marshals refused to approve state license renewal if the hospital was not renovated. Hospital administrators determined that it would be as expensive to renovate as to build a new hospital. The replacement hospital, Lyndon B Johnson, opened on June 2, 1989, and patients from Jefferson Davis were transferred there. The Jefferson Davis building sat empty despite attempts to sell it until 1999, when the land was purchased by a developer who planned to build apartments. There was a push to preserve the historic hospital building after the sale, but this failed, and the building was demolished later that year. The land was then bought by the Federal Reserve, which built a bank on the site in 2005.

While the Jefferson Davis Hospital on Allen Parkway was largely forgotten after its demolition, the building on Elder Street entered the public imagination and was featured on a Houston ghost tour for several years. After a long abandonment, Jefferson Davis Hospital on Elder Street was renovated into Elder Street Artist Lofts in 2005 and that year received a National Register listing. In 2008 the building received a Texas Historical Marker, and it became a Protected Historical Landmark in 2013.

Stephen Harrigan, “The Baby Factory,” Texas Monthly, January 1980. Harris Health History, Harris Health System (https://www.harrishealth.org/about-us-hh/who-we-are/Pages/history.aspx), accessed April 30, 2021. Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Houston Chronicle, February 6, 1931; July 10, 1953; April 21, 1963; November 10, 15, 1964; October 1, 1982; December 10, 1982; December 16, 1984; January 7, 23, 1999; March 31, 1999; May 23, 1999; December 4, 1999; December 21, 2003. Houston Post, May 27, 1963; November 8, 1964; January 25, 1989; May 28, 1989. Evan Kalish, “Jefferson Davis Hospital (Demolished)—Houston TX,” November 4, 2014, The Living New Deal (https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/jefferson-davis-hospital-demolished-houston-tx/), accessed February 17, 2022. Walter H. Moursund, A History of Baylor University College of Medicine (Houston, 1956). Walter H. Moursund, Sr., M.D.. L.L.D, “Medicine in Greater Houston, 1836–1956,” 1958, McGovern Historical Research Center, Texas Medical Center Library, Houston. A. S. Reeves (Administrator for Jefferson Davis Hospital), “A History of Jefferson Davis Hospital, Houston, Texas,” 1960, MS 054, gi203693715, McGovern Historical Research Center, Texas Medical Center Library, Houston. James A. Tinsley, “The Texas Medical Center: A History of the Founding Years, 1941–1980,” IC-002, Series 1, Box 19, McGovern Historical Research Center, Texas Medical Center Library, Houston.

Categories:
  • Education
  • Medical Schools and Teaching Hospitals
  • Health and Medicine
  • Hospitals, Clinics, and Medical Centers
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Allison Taffet, “Jefferson Davis Hospital,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 06, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/jefferson-davis-hospital.

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February 22, 2022
February 22, 2022

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