Marine Villa, which has been known by that name only since 1969, is a South St. Louis neighborhood of approximately 2700 persons bordered by Cherokee Street to the north, Jefferson Avenue to the west, Meramec Street to the south, and the Mississippi River to the east. Neighborhoods bordering Marine Villa include Benton Park, Gravois Park, and Dutchtown. It is
arguably one of the lesser known neighborhoods of St. Louis. If you study the neighborhood’s location on old maps, you will see that the city’s Marine Hospital, the focus of this post, once occupied a prominent place in this part of the city. It is reasonable to conclude that the name of the neighborhood is fully derived from its original landmark, the Marine Hospital, although this author could not find any sources to support that claim. The Marine Hospital is one of many former landmarks in the city of St. Louis that due to their demolition have contributed to significant losses of identity for the neighborhoods that were built around them.
The Marine Hospital (1855-1934)
The St. Louis Marine Hospital, now razed, stood at 3640 Marine Avenue, at the intersection of Marine and Miami Avenues, four blocks west of the Mississippi River. The 17-acre site on which the hospital was to be built was deeded by the St. Louis Board of Education to the federal government in 1850 for use as a hospital. Built 1852-1855 with $100,000 in federal funds, the hospital was originally intended for “navy men, merchant marine and river men.”1 It was one of several marine hospitals built by the federal government in the early 19th century. The hospital was described in the 1950s as a three-story classic-revival building, constructed with white and yellow brick.2 The hospital’s history is more complex than its original use as a mariner’s hospital; during its century of existence the structure would serve a variety of purposes.
By the early years of the Civil War, the hospital was already in a state of disrepair – remarkable considering that the structure would remain in almost constant service for nearly another hundred years. In 1861, less than a decade after the hospital’s opening, John Strong Newberry, Associate Secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, visited the Marine Hospital and thoroughly reported his observations:
Hospital has 6 wards – 18 beds in three of them; 20 in 3 others – in all 114; might accommodate 150, when crowded. Has been used by soldiers a good deal, who are barracked temporarily in sheds in the hospital yard. The building is sadly out of repair. Cupola leaks; flag-staff rotten; glass broken; stairs dirty. All the water-works are out of order; the pipes burst every winter two or three times. The water closest and bath-rooms past use from neglect. The ceiling broken everywhere, and the glass very badly set. The water forced up by a steam-engine in the most expensive way: a fire every morning and evening: all water drawn a mile and a half: and the roof discharges into a cistern where water is stored sooty deposits every rain. Great need of a show to these pipes of a movable character. Great need of a railing about the doors; three of them dangerous; drains in the yard fallen in; in one place about one half dug up, in which much filth had accumulated.
The beds all dirty and disgusting; men sleeping in their clothes; no sheets or bed clothes, except a comforter to each man; blankets, 24 in number; no sheets; no change for men; all the men use vessels in the rooms for all necessary uses, which are carried out. The house bad smelling; men disgusting.3
During the war the federal government converted the specialized marine hospital into a general military hospital for soldiers, Federal and Confederate. According to a twentieth century source, the records show that 4,598 soldiers were treated at the St. Louis Marine Hospital during the war. Heavy iron bars, a reminder of the Confederate prisoner-patients once housed there, remained on windows of the facility until the time of its razing. There was a tunnel to the hospital that led under Marine Avenue to the Mississippi River. It is likely that the tunnel was built during wartime as a means of escape should the hospital-prison be attacked, but some have suggested that the tunnel found an alternative use on the Underground Railroad. The tunnel was closed in the twentieth century.4
Later in the 19th century the Marine Hospital took on an expanded role, serving the civilian population. In 1890 the country’s marine hospitals, including St. Louis’ Marine Hospital, were given the mission of preventing the spread of disease, notably cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, and plague.5
A New Marine Hospital (1935-1951)
By the 1930s the federal government was considering plans for improvement of the Marine Hospital complex, which had more patients than beds.5 At that time the hospital was receiving civilian government employees and members of the Merchant Marine. In August of 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a $60 million construction fund bill. Locals expected that $1 million of that funding bill would pay for the replacement of the original 1850s hospital structure at the center of the complex.7 But in January of 1936, a site for a completely new facility was chosen in Kirkwood, Missouri at the the intersection of Crouch and Woodbine Avenues.8 Locals protested the move as wasteful, citing the money needed to purchase the 13-acre parcel in Kirkwood and the $1,250,000 in construction costs. While the old facility was defended by some as a “beautiful, restful sight overlooking the Mississippi River,” “easily accessible,” and “historic,” others called it a fire trap.9 The city’s Marine Hospital could not compare to the modern features of a completely new facility designed with every comfort in mind, down to even “decorative features designed to improve the mental
attitude of patients through psychological effect.” The Marine Hospital moved to its new Kirkwood location in 1939, while the old facility was left empty. The Kirkwood hospital would eventually be transferred to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for use as general hospital at no cost in November of 1953.10
In 1940 the National Youth Administration (NYA) moved into the hospital complex. The NYA occupied young people with projects like carpentry for boys and sewing for girls. In 1943 stewardship of the the hospital complex was transferred again, this time to the Public Health Service for use as a venereal disease clinic. The Public Health Service used the old hospital complex as the Midwestern Medical Center until September of 1951.11 12
Final Years (1951-Present)
In December of 1952 it was announced that after 96 years of federal ownership, the original Marine Hospital complex would be transferred back to St. Louis City government for use as a tuberculosis clinic. The city was then suffering from a bed shortage for tuberculosis patients.13 The wood-frame post-Civil War buildings were still in use at this time. The original 1850s structure was seen as a fire-trap in need of extensive renovation, so it was only used for administrative purposes. By 1954 the Marine Hospital had become an induction and recruitment center for the armed forces.
The Marine Hospital complex was razed in 1959; the site became home to the National Personnel Records Center, Civilian Personnel Records Facility, part of the National Archives and Records Administration, which was previously located downtown in the Butler Brothers Building at 1724 Locust Street. The National Personnel Records Center opened in 1961. In 1996 all that remained of the landmark Marine Hospital, namesake of Marine Villa, was a granite fireplace, installed in the office of the assistant director of the National Personnel Records Center.14 The National Archives and Records Administration is now relocated to another location and the building is occupied by a warehousing company. The fate of the fireplace is unknown.
1. [“Marine Hospital Receives $715,000 Additional Funds.” St. Louis Star and Times, June 23, 1936.]↩
2. [“Marine Hospital Has Been in U.S. Service for More Than 100 Years.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February 8, 1956.]↩
3. [Newberry, J.S. Documents of the United States Sanitary Commission. Vol. 1, No. 26. 15.]↩
4. [“Marine Hospital A Reminder of Civil War Days.” A St. Louis newspaper. 1930s.]↩
5. [“Marine Hospital On River To Be Acquired By City.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1952, 2c sec.]↩
6. [“St. Louis To Get New Building For Marine Hospital.” St. Louis Star, August 14, 1935.]↩
7. [“New Marine Hospital for St. Louis to Cost $1,000,000 Approved.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 13, 1935.]↩
8. [“New Marine Hospital Group of 10 Buildings.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1936, Sunday Morning ed.]↩
9. [“Protests Moving of Marine Hospital.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 18, 1936, Letters to the Editor sec.]↩
10. [“Marine Hospital Awarded to Sisters of St. Joseph.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, October 17, 1953.]↩
11. [“First Projects at Youth Center Announced.” St. Louis Star, April 27, 1940.]↩
12. [“Letter to the Editor.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch Magazine, August 4, 1996, 15.]↩
13. [“St. Louis Planning To Acquire Old Marine Hospital.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch Magazine, December 16, 1952.]↩
14. [Voelz, Eric V. “Letters to the Editor, Addendum.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch Magazine, September 15, 1996, 28.]↩