Elliot Park’s Medical Facilities: A History of Caring
Hennepin County Medical Center occupies several blocks of Elliot Park. Their glassy new facility overlooks Chicago and 8th Street, standing alongside the concrete constructions built in the 1970s. Wailing sirens and ambulances are common background noise for the neighborhood.
Medical buildings have had a presence in Elliot Park for over 150 years, bringing with them a community of doctors, nurses, and patients. What started as small, house-sized facilities, grew into the major health care organizations that served the city of Minneapolis today. The history of these institutions is carefully preserved at the Hennepin Medical History Museum, where volunteers retain the stories connected to the medical history of the community.
Medical History in Elliot Park
The tradition of medical buildings in Elliot Park began over one hundred years ago to care for sick and injured workers who were employed in the milling and railroad industry in downtown Minneapolis. These workers were mainly recent immigrants who faced hazardous living and working conditions. They lived in unsanitary, tightly-packed housing and faced dangerous working conditions such as milling explosions which led to injuries and amputations.
The care facilities began as small, house-sized hospitals. Reverend David Buell Knickerbocker of the Protestant Episcopal Church opened Cottage Hospital in 1887. When the facility relocated to Elliot Park, it changed its name to St. Barnabas.
To accommodate the growing need for health care, both religious and governmental agencies established care institutions in Elliot Park: Minneapolis City Council opened City Hospital in 1887. Methodist women established Asbury Hospital in 1892 and Augustana Mission College in 1896. The Swedish Hospital was built in 1898, as an extension of Augustana.
By the 1950s, Elliot Park was home to five major care institutions and multiple care facilities. But by the 1960s, the medical institutions faced funding issues, and could not sustain themselves alone. They survived by coming together. In the 1970s, St. Barnabas and the Swedish Hospital consolidated to form the Metropolitan Medical Center. In 1976, Metropolitan Medical Center and its neighbor, HCMC began construction of a new, shared facility.
Medical Buildings in Elliot Park
Elliot Park’s medical buildings are part of the collective memory of the neighborhood. By the 1950s, overcrowding and neglect had taken its toll on the Old General building. Discussions of tearing the building down and reassigning the staff activated public interest groups and private citizens to advocate for the “General.” While the building could not be saved, staff expressed the need to preserve the community of the hospital.
Before the building was demolished, Dr. Tim Rumsey wrote in the General’s newsletter, “For nearly three decades, the General’s dilapidated old bones have been crumbling. In the spring of 1976, they were finally put to rest. After one year of intense planning, the move began. Forty ambulance trips and forty-five van loads were used to transport patients to their new home just two blocks away. Now only one question remained: Could the General’s heart also be transplanted?”
“Now only one question remained: Could the General’s heart also be transplanted?”
Several of the medical buildings are still present in Elliot Park. The Old Swedish Hospital (now the Shapiro Building) is still in use as an HCMC medical facility, while other medical buildings have been repurposed as apartments.
Hennepin Medical History Center
While the physical landscape has changed, the heart and soul of the old hospital buildings are remembered and preserved at the Hennepin History Medical Center – through the artifacts displayed in their collection and the volunteers that help tell their stories.
The museum was founded by Hillie Prose, R.N, the former Director of Emergency Nursing ER nurses. Along with a small crew of volunteers, Hillie meticulously documented the medical buildings’ history. If you come to the museum (on a Tuesdays or Thursdays morning) you can see a elements of the old hospitals – medical technology, pneumonic tube used to quickly dispatch messages, a bottle containing heroin for cough syrup, and rows of pristine nurses’ uniforms throughout the decades.
The collection captures the spirit of the hospitals’ caring community. There is a small wooden cart that carried miniature birthday cakes to patients at the Old Swedish Hospital. A glass case displays a nurse’s pin from the Old General Hospital – a small golden badge that nurses received upon their graduation.
Rachel Collova is an HCMC nurse and museum volunteer. She was a nursing student in the 1970s and worked seasonally at a Dairy Queen in Elliot Park. She recalls her close-knit ties with the other nurses – her family while she worked and studied. Rachel became a volunteer at the museum because she had always wanted to give back to the Service League, a group that supported the hospitals’ mission and staff. The Service League would give the students the occasional tickets to events and even paid for her gold nurse’s pin. Rachel still works a couple days a week as a nurse and always wears her pin.
Rondine Mehling is the current curator of Hennepin Medical History Center and a retired HCMC employee. Rondine emphasized the importance of the community in the hospital. In the 1970s, she was the head of the night crew in what was called Woman’s Medicine. She hung so many IV’s in her time there that she once woke up with her arms raised above her head as if she were hanging an IV in her sleep! Although it was hard work, Rondine recalls the tight-knit group of women who worked together.
One Christmas, she recalled, the nurses prepared a surprise for the patients who had to stay in the hospital over the holiday. They purchased Christmas-themed fabric and sewed festive hospital gowns so that each patient had a present to unwrap on Christmas day. “The night crew was special.” She said. “We were all we had – we were family.” The women still meet once a month for coffee.
“We were all we had – we were family.”
The medical buildings – past and present – have shaped the neighborhood and touched the lives of the doctors, nurses, and patients who passed through their doors. Today, only a few of the original buildings remain in Elliot Park, but the tradition of caring continues.
Lindberg Consulting (2012), “Elliot Park: A Neighborhood Caring for its Community”, http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@cped/documents/webcontent/wcms1p-092012.pdf
Hennepin Medical History Center, http://www.hennepinmedicalhistory.org/collections/