St. Mary’s Hospital (1898)

The 1898 St. Mary’s Hospital. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

423–431 E. Third St. | Architect: Clarence Johnston | Built: 1898 | Lost: 1967

In 1893 the parents of Mother Scholastica Kerst, prioress of Duluth’s Benedictine nuns and founder of St. Mary’s Hospital, purchased lots at Third Street and Fifth Avenue East on which to build a convent motherhouse. Construction began that year, but the Financial Panic of 1893 dried up donations, and the project was delayed. Meanwhile, St. Mary’s building could not keep up with growing demands. McGolrick suggested that a new hospital could be built using the motherhouse foundation. Kerst agreed and hired noted St. Paul architect Clarence Johnston to draw up plans for a building the Duluth News Tribune would later call “an imposing structure combining elegance and convenience.”

The News Tribune also wrote that “No particular style of architecture has been followed in erecting the building.” The four-story vernacular hospital included corner towers capped with octagonal roofs and Roman-arch windows along the fourth level. The ground floor—actually a partially above-ground basement—doubled as the building’s foundation and was faced with brownstone from Kettle River, Minnesota. The same stone was used to make a grand staircase leading to the second floor entrance along Third Street. The entrance portico was supported by four square brick pillars. Directly above, on the third floor, rested a porch. A balcony held up by four stone Ionic columns sat atop the porch. Both features, as well as the building’s covered rooftop promenade, were included so that “convalescents may air themselves.” High above the balcony a pediment topped with a cross crowned the four-story central pier, while the rest of the building was crowned with a cornice of elaborate brickwork that formed a row of small Gothic arches made of the same buff-colored vernier brick that faced the rest of the building.

The building could house two hundred patients—twice as many as the first St. Mary’s Hospital. The ground floor contained the heating plant, kitchens, cold storage, staff dining rooms, a sewing room, and a small “strong room” for “patients that become unmanageable.” The main entrance opened to the second floor which contained the mother superior’s office, a reception room, parlor, accident ward, recovery room, pharmacy, laundry facilities, and seven private patient rooms, each with its own bathroom. A chapel, linen room, two large lavatories, and two large patient wards occupied the third floor. The fourth contained large dormitories and four private rooms for patients, a nurse’s room, operating room, recovery room, and sterilizing room. Each floor also had a “diet kitchen” to prepare patient meals.

The hospital underwent several expansions and additions beginning in 1911 until the original hospital building was known as the east wing . It was demolished in 1967 and replaced by a new east wing constructed the same year.

St. Mary’s Hospital’s 1911 West Wing (right) and 1922 Annex (left) ca. 1945, photographer unknown. [Image: College of St. Scholastica]

St. Mary’s Hospital Annex | 405 East 3rd Street | Architect: Franklin Ellerbe | Built: 1922 | Extant

One of the major threads in the history of St. Mary’s Hospital is its seemingly never-ending expansion. The first addition to its 1898 building, a wing stretching the building further west, was made in 1911 to alleviate the overcrowded facility. Following plans by St. Paul architect Franklin Ellerbe, the western octagonal tower was removed and replaced with a crenelated cornice, and a matching corner tower was built at the facility’s new western end. The brickwork and windows matched the original, but the rooftop did not include a parapet walk

St. Mary’s doubled its patient capacity when a six-story addition, also designed by Ellerbe, went up immediately west of the hospital in 1922. Including a ground floor—technically the basement—the vernacular building stands seven stories high along West Third Street. It was connected to St. Mary’s 1911 western wing, and two more identical buildings were planned to stand west of it, but were never built; consequently, the building has no main entrance. Architecturally, it serves as a transition between the Romanesque/Gothic/English Revival buildings of the nineteenth century and the sleek, modern buildings of the Art Deco movement to come: It is faced in brick and trimmed with stone, but there are few architectural flourishes and a focus on vertical lines, like its protruding six-story pier along Third Street.

The building included 125 rooms, 90 of them for patients, bringing the hospital’s total to 400. The fourth floor became home to obstetrics, and the top floor a children’s ward; the rest housed private patient rooms. Wire netting protected those enjoying the exposed “recreation roof.”

More changes came to St. Mary’s in the 1950s, including a nine-story wing in 1957. Ten years later the 1898 building was demolished and replaced by a new East Wing. The 1922 Annex still stands, but much of it has been covered by subsequent expansions, and only the central pier of the Third Street façade remains visible. In 1988 St. Mary’s Hospital, the Duluth Clinic, Miller-Dwan Hospital, and the adjacent Polinsky Rehabilitation Building were all linked together with a skywalk system. Others buildings and parking ramps have since been added to the sprawling facility.

Along the way Duluth’s Benedictine nuns stopped operating the hospital and became known as St. Mary’s Medical Center, which in 1997 integrated with the Duluth Clinic to form St. Mary’s/Duluth Clinic Health System (SMDC). Four years later, SMDC absorbed Miller-Dwan Hospital as well. In 2004 SMDC merged with Benedictine Health System and became Essentia Health.

The hospital’s campus now covers several city blocks in what was once Duluth’s Ashtabula Heights neighborhood, where Duluth’s wealthy built opulent Victorian homes in the 1880s. Nearly all of those houses are gone today, most replaced by health care and associated parking facilities—and the health care footprint continues to expand. In 2019 Essentia embarked on a $900 million expansion project that will in part replace St. Mary’s Medical Center, expected to be completed in 2023. Part of the project may include the removal of some older buildings, including the 1922 annex.