What to do with Saint Louis University Hospital's building? A great-grandson has a proposal
When the industrialist Firmin Desloge died in 1929 at 86 years of age, his various enterprises, including Missouri lead mining, made him as rich as tycoons such as William K. Vanderbilt and Andrew Mellon. In obituaries he was described as one of the wealthiest men in America, and his status was buoyed as well by his membership in the select group of the French-American aristocracy. A portrait photograph shows him sporting a great bushy mustache, along with unruly curly hair and a very content and happy face.
His great-grandson Christopher D. Desloge is distinguished by a similar happy countenance, one that radiates an entrepreneurial exuberance similar to that of his great-grandfather. By inheritance and with optimism, he is working to protect the landmark building that once carried his ancestor’s name. The building is Saint Louis University Hospital, formerly known as FirminDesloge Hospital.
Christopher Desloge established the Foundation for Commercial Philanthropy to direct money at services for the poor, particularly the homeless. This is an echo of his great-grandfather’s concerns, who specified in his will that the hospital he established with a $1 million bequest give special attention to the medical needs of the poor.
Desloge, like many people in St. Louis, loves the massive building sitting proud and tall on a ridge on Grand Boulevard south of Chouteau Avenue. SSM Health now owns the building and plans to build a new, $500 million hospital in that vicinity. There has been no official announcement of demolition plans by SSM. Indeed, a spokesman has said SSM and its architects, the Lawrence Group, are at early stages in planning – too early to discuss any plans for the new building at all.
However, in response to the possibility of a demolition of the old hospital to make way for the new, Christopher Desloge has chosen to take action preemptively, just in case.
Desloge proposes an alternative to razing the building. He thinks the owner should renovate it for multiple uses, including projects of his Foundation for Commercial Philanthropy. He acknowledges there would be renovation costs in excess of the $500 million estimate for a new building. He recently prepared a proposal offering to help to offset the "burden factor" of the additional costs and made specific offers in that regard. He has presented this proposal to William Thompson, president and CEO of SSM Health, and to Chris Howard, president and CEO designate of the hospital group.
The Foundation for Commercial Philanthropy (FCP) proposed the following:
- Lease several floors at market rate rent for The Hive (a not-for-profit business incubator based on models similar to CORTEX)
- Foster the idea of historic tax credits that could raise perhaps $5 million or more
- FCP would drive a capital campaign to raise $15 million to $20 million. The sum of all this, Desloge said, would eliminate the financial burden factor.
“We know of no known preservation project where the entire burden cost is proposed to be eliminated as a way to offer the roadmap to assured preservation,” Desloge wrote. He said also that SSM Health indicated to him that it might cost $20 million to renovate the hospital.
“I suggested that it may be more, maybe $30 million,” he said.
In addition to this recent three-part proposal, in February, Desloge wrote “A Brief Plea For Preservation and Adaptive Reuse” and sent it to Thompson. It speaks to the “repurposing” of the Desloge Tower and outlines what his group hopes to accomplish. It also presents reasons for saving the building; examples of successful adaptive reuse of buildings in St. Louis and other cities; and a specific proposal for occupancy on several floors by The Hive incubator.
Desloge has been joined in his preemptive efforts by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis and its director, Andrew Weil. Weil believes the money to be gained through historic tax credits would dramatically exceed Desloge’s estimate, and would play a major role in financing the renovation.
The project also would be eligible for tax credits by having a National Register of Historic Places nomination. Landmarks has offered to prepare this nomination for free.
Weil also wrote a letter to SSM Health’s Thompson describing Landmarks’ position on the development of the new hospital and the preservation of the old one:
“The former FirminDesloge Hospital Tower and its interconnected chapel are among St. Louis’ most iconic buildings. Both are architectural masterpieces and together constitute an irreplaceable cultural asset that helps to define the identity of St. Louis and express the heritage of the Saint Louis University Medical Campus.
“While we recognize that the Desloge complex may no longer suit the needs of a 21st century hospital,” he continued, “beauty, utility and enviable location represent outstanding advantages for a wide variety of new uses. No other building of this scale and quality is positioned at both the entrance to the thriving South Grand/Tower Grove area and adjacent to the city’s booming central corridor. “Desloge Tower boasts stunning views, easy access to both public transit and major interstates,’ he wrote, “proximity to world class parks and theaters, and an abundance of nearby restaurants. The building offers an unparalleled opportunity for redevelopment that would enhance SSM’s investment in a new, much-needed modern hospital.’’
The letter includes signatures of a high profile group that includes preservationists and preservation organizations, government officials, including aldermen of the city of St. Louis, civic groups, political organizations, writers, architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and others. Together and individually they bring enormous credibility and muscle to Desloge’s efforts.
As a group they offered this:
“As residents of the area, stakeholder organizations, and people who love their city, we are thrilled by the unlimited possibilities the Desloge complex offers and look forward with great anticipation to the day when a productive plan for the future of the buildings is announced. Please consider the undersigned to be allies and resources that are available to assist SSM and its associates in their efforts to create a new, world-class medical campus in the midst of our beautiful historic city.”
An illustrious history
Until 1959, the landmark 10-story building with the steeply pitched copper clad roof was referred to in the vernacular as simply Firmin Desloge. Firmin V. Desloge died in 1929 and bequeathed $1 million to St. Louis University, the equivalent of $13,750,000 today — to build a city hospital. It was to serve not only the university’s community but also, specifically, the region’s African American citizens. The building was dedicated in 1933. Under the ownership of Saint Louis University, followed by Tenet Healthcare Corporation and finally SSM Health, the 1933 building has been maintained properly.
The chapel mentioned by Weil above is the Desloge Chapel. It was designed by Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), and is, as Weil said, “under known.” It is as pure a translation or reiteration of the Gothic in the 20th century as there can possibly be, and was inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. That radiant chapel was commissioned by Louis IX (St. Louis) to house what was believed to be one of Christendom's most powerful relics, the Crown of Thorns.
Cram was extraordinarily famous in his day; he won contracts to design the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the massive and still unfinished Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City and he worked at Princeton as supervising architect from 1907 to 1929. To add to his celebrity, he was the cover portrait of TIME Magazine in 1936. He was a leading figure in the development of the collegiate Gothic style, which over the years has been significantly influential in the design of many university campuses, including the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.
Demolition of the Desloge Tower would more likely than not cause a public and professional commotion in St. Louis. As Weil said, it conveys a genuine sense of place because of the quality of its design and its visibility, and generations of St. Louisans have been beneficiaries of its medical attention. It is admired and beloved.
The diminutive but affecting Desloge Chapel, built with a $100,000 gift from Firmin Desloge’s wife, Lydia Davis Desloge, may be small in comparison to the Desloge Tower but in terms of architectural importance it comes out the winner, and were it marked for razing, protests might be coming from around the world.