Homer G. Phillips hospital in St. Louis was a public hospital owned and operated by the city of St. Louis from 1937 to 1979. Between 1937 and 1955, when its hospitals were segregated, it was the only hospital for Blacks in St. Louis. It holds the distinction of being the first teaching hospital to serve Blacks west of the Mississippi River.
Homer G. Phillips hospital was named for a prominent lawyer who recognized the inadequacy of the existing Black hospital in St. Louis and led a campaign for a larger facility. It had 685 beds, stands at 2601 N. Whittier Street, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was largely vacant for 23 years but reopened as senior living apartments in 2003.
Homer G. Phillips Hospital, St. Louis
St. Louis experienced an influx of Black migrants from the south, who moved north to take industrial jobs as part of the Great Migration. Between 1910 and 1920, the Black population of St. Louis increased by 60 percent, to more than 70,000 people.
City Hospital was segregated, so a significant and growing part of the population couldn’t use it. St. Louis opened City Hospital #2 to serve this community, and replaced it with what became Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1937. Construction began in 1932 and was financed with a combination of a city bond and Federal grants. The final cost was $3.1 million.
The hospital completed the Ville neighborhood where it stood. With the hospital in place, it was possible to be born, go to school, live, work, eat, go to church, and see a show all within a six-by-nine block area. Life was still segregated, but The Ville provided a safe space. For about three decades, it provided a neighborhood for Blacks much like the famed Hill neighborhood. Famous St. Louisans from the Ville include rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry and tennis star Arthur Ashe.
Improvements over its predecessor
Homer G. Phillips Hospital had its problems, but it also had lots of bright spots. With 685 beds, Homer G. Phillips Hospital was one of the 10 largest hospitals in the United States by 1944. As a hospital run by Blacks for Blacks, it created more than 1,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs in the community. According to Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom by Clarence Lang, in 1960, it was the only entity in St. Louis employing Black professionals in significant numbers.
It was the first teaching hospital for Black doctors west of the Mississippi River, and one of only two in existence. At one point, 75 percent of all Black doctors in the United States interned at Phillips Hospital. And by 1961, it had trained more Black doctors and nurses than any other hospital in the world. Each department had at least one Black doctor who was also a staff member at either Washington University or St. Louis University.
Phillips Hospital was a leader in intravenous feeding and the treatment of gunshot wounds, ulcers, and burns. Besides training doctors and nurses, it also trained x-ray technicians, lab technicians, and medical record keepers.
Desegregation and its effect on a Black hospital
In 1955, the city of St. Louis desegregated its hospitals. This allowed both City Hospital and Phillips Hospital to admit anyone, regardless of race or belief. Due to its location, Phillips Hospital remained mostly Black. After all, 90 percent of the population around it was Black.
In spite of its accomplishments, the hospital was underfunded and understaffed by the city. And desegregation ultimately played a role in Phillips Hospital’s closure. “Separate but equal” had been the mantra of segregation. The two hospitals were separate, but had never been equal. If nothing else, City Hospital was larger and better equipped. And the two medical schools preferred to send their doctors and interns to the south side than the north side.
Closure and merger with City Hospital
The hospital’s continued existence was a struggle throughout its history. Securing the funding took four years, then allocating the funding after its approval took several more years. Construction finally began in October 1932 and finished in 1937. Efforts to close it began in earnest in 1961, and the neurological and psychiatric facilities moved to City Hospital in the late 1960s. Civic leaders had mixed thoughts on the issue. Some saw closure as a means to an end to get a more integrated society.
The city abruptly closed Homer G. Phillips Hospital on August 17, 1979. Writing in January 2020, retired Congressman Bill Clay said various entities, including the medical schools of Washington and St. Louis universities and both daily newspapers and various white politicians and business leaders agitated for its closure.
Although civic leaders took strong stances on the issue, the doctors largely remained silent. Another problem was St. Louis University, who refused to provide interns to staff the hospital. There was some speculation the doctors believed Central Medical Center, a hospital at 3300 N Kingshighway, would take up the slack.
Aftermath of closing Phillips Hospital
Alderman Vincent Schoemehl successfully ran for mayor on the promise to reopen Phillips Hospital. He won by a landslide. His plan, if the city could only afford one hospital, was to reopen Phillips. Schoemehl did indeed close the city’s other hospitals, City Hospital and Robert Koch Hospital. But he didn’t reopen Phillips.
Homer G. Phillips Hospital was listed as a St. Louis Landmark in 1980 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It was the first of the three hospitals St. Louis owned and operated to make the National Register.
The city of St. Louis did reopen the clinic in 1991, but the remainder of the hospital remained shuttered. Homer G. Phillips Hospital served its original purpose, making health care accessible to a population of people who couldn’t get it. Closing it left a hole, and that hole has continued to expand over the last 40 years. Not only are the hospitals whose mission was to serve the poor gone, there are fewer hospitals, period, in the city than there were in 1979.
As for the idea that giving up a hospital might help St. Louis integrate, that didn’t really pan out.
Why Schoemehl didn’t reopen Homer G. Phillips Hospital
Vincent Schoemehl was elected to reopen the hospital and then didn’t do it. But why?
Part of the problem was beyond his control. He made a promise he couldn’t keep. Reopening Phillips required an amendment to the city charter, which required 60 percent of the vote from the Board of Alderman. Schoemehl got 56 percent. He didn’t have the votes.
There were logistical problems as well. St. Louis University and Washington University, who staffed the two hospitals, opposed the change. Phillips wasn’t large enough to duplicate some of the facilities that were present at City Hospital. The cost of shuttering City and reopening Phillips would run millions of dollars, and the city already had a $54 million deficit that year. Schoemehl then ordered an independent study, which Black alderman hoped would support reopening Phillips.
The study did not. Without the votes and without the support, Phillips remained closed.
Redevelopment of Homer G. Phillips Hospital
Phillips Hospital didn’t deteriorate as badly as other abandoned buildings in St. Louis tend to do. Parts of the complex were only empty for about 10 years, and the blog Built St. Louis cited community pride in its hospital as also contributing to its preservation. In 2000, W.A.T. Dignity Corporation secured financing to begin redeveloping the building. Renovation began in December 2001 and finished in the summer of 2003. The completed building is now a 220-unit senior living complex, with nearly 100% occupancy and a waiting list to get in.
Reuse of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital name
In October 2019, controversial developer Paul McKee secured funding and announced plans to use the Homer G. Phillips Hospital name on a small 3-bed urgent care clinic two and a half miles away on the site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Similar to the original Phillips Hospital, the project has been continually delayed. McKee, not known for meeting deadlines, has plans to add additional buildings to the facility and potentially expand it into a proper hospital. However, he has only until June 2023 to do so.
Support for the new facility is mixed. Advocates site the lack of health care options for Black St. Louisans, particularly in north St. Louis. Critics like Bill Clay say the resuse of the name on such a small facility is an insult to the memory of the original facility and the people who fought to open it and keep it open.
City Hospital #2
Homer G. Phillips Hospital’s predecessor was City Hospital #2. City Hospital #2 was a 177-bed facility that stood at the intersection of Lawton Avenue and N. Garisson Avenue. Lawton Avenue no longer exists but was two blocks south of Pine. The area is now part of the St. Louis University Campus.
City Hospital #2 was originally Barnes Medical College, a troubled medical school. When the school folded in 1919, the city purchased the facility. The building was small, in poor condition, and obsolete. Two private Black hospitals also operated at the time to augment it. The arrangement was inadequate and the quality of care was rather poor. The name was problematic, suggesting the hospital was inferior to the other City Hospital. The suggestion wasn’t inaccurate.
City Hospital #2 closed when Phillips Hospital opened, and the facility was demolished in the 1960s.
In addition to the other problems with City Hospital #2, its Midtown location was far from the population center of the people who had to use it. This has been a continuing problem for Blacks in St. Louis.
Who was Homer G. Phillips?
Homer G. Phillips was a Black attorney who recognized that the overcrowded and obsolete 177-bed City Hospital #2 couldn’t support the population of 70,000 Black St. Louisans. He also argued it was unfair that Black tax dollars supported hospitals where only white doctors could be trained. Although Blacks could attend medical school, there were no hospitals in St. Louis where they could complete their internships.
Starting in 1914, he led a campaign for a bond issue to provide for the construction of a larger facility to support Black patients and medical students. The bond passed, securing $1 million, but the city of St. Louis then refused to allocate the funds, instead, planning to add a segregated addition to the existing City Hospital, or force Black residents to use Deaconess Hospital. Phillips opposed both plans. The City Hospital location was far from the center of St. Louis’ Black population. Deaconess had similar logistical problems and was also outdated.
Phillips successfully debated the St. Louis Board of Alderman, and the city purchased 6.3 acres for a new hospital.
The murder of Homer G. Phillips
On June 18, 1931, before construction could begin, Phillips was shot and killed. Two men approached Phillips as he waited for a streetcar and spoke to him briefly. One man struck him in the face, then shot him several times with an automatic pistol. Two men were arrested for his murder but were acquitted by an all-white jury, so no one was ever convicted and no motive established. Technically his murder remains unsolved. Phillips was 51. He is buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Normandy, St. Louis County, Missouri, USA.
The hospital Phillips spent the final years of his life advocating fully opened in 1937. In 1942, the city of St. Louis renamed it in his honor.
Homer G. Phillips Hospital architecture
Homer G. Phillips Hospital was designed by architect Albert Osburg and built in Art Deco style, with a red granite base, yellow brick, terra cotta trim, and a red tile roof. The complex consists of a central building with four wards, forming an X shape. The complex also contains a power building, service building, and nurses’ residence. The city added a detached clinic in 1960.
It stood seven stories tall to fit in with its surrounding neighborhood. Most hospitals built in the 1920s were skyscrapers, but a skyscraper would have dominated the Ville neighborhood.