Southeast Raleigh to get new community health center on site of historic hospital

tmcdonald@newsobserver.com June 19, 2012 

— A historic hospital that closed its doors in Southeast Raleigh half a century ago will reopen as a primary and urgent care center, the head of a commercial real estate company announced this week.

The old St. Agnes Hospital – created in an era of segregated health care – is a roofless and windowless ruin that sits on the edge of the St. Augustine’s College campus near the intersection of State and Oakwood streets. It closed in 1961, when WakeMed opened.

Billie Redmond, chief operating officer of Coldwell Banker Commercial Trademark Properties of Raleigh, says her company is committed to rebuilding the institution and working with Rex Healthcare to transform it into a community medical facility.

“The project will provide more health care options for the local community and create both temporary and permanent jobs in Raleigh,” Redmond said in announcing the decision. “It’s a project that will preserve Raleigh’s history and move the city forward.”

Rex Healthcare will be responsible for both the primary and urgent care centers.

Rex spokesman Alan Wolf said the hospital is excited to be part of a “key community project that would bring renewed life to a site that played an important role in this region’s medical history.”There’s no firm date when construction will begin. Marc Newman, vice president of Institutional Advancement at St. Augustine’s College, said school officials hoped to provide a timetable soon.

“St. Agnes is historic, not just for St. Augustine’s, but for the region,” Newman said. “It was a medical training center during a time when health care was not adequate. To reopen now in a time when health care in the community is still not adequate says something about that corner. It’s a beacon for the entire community.”

Mozelle Weldon, a retired Wake County schools kindergarten teacher, said two of her siblings and her husband were all born at St. Agnes Hospital. Weldon, 67, now volunteers at the Tuttle Community Day Care Center, just around the corner from St. Agnes.

The median income for the area is among the lowest in Wake County, and the neighborhood has been bedeviled by so much violent crime in recent years that Raleigh police opened a substation on nearby North Tarboro Road.

“The kids see and hear too much,” Weldon said about the pre-schoolers who played in front of the daycare center Wednesday. “The hospital is a historic monument. I am glad there’s something to keep it there so that we can be connected to our roots in our time.”

A training ground for nurses

St. Agnes Hospital was founded in 1896 by Sarah Hunter, wife of A.B. Hunter, an Episcopalian priest who became principal of St. Augustine’s College in 1888. For many, the hospital is best known as the place where the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, died after the roadster he was driving swerved off a highway in Franklinton in 1946.

But the hospital was also a training ground for hundreds of black nurses along the East Coast, the birthplace of thousands of black babies and the place where area doctors – black and white – got their start in medicine.

The hospital, which for nearly 70 years was the only medical facility for blacks between Hampton, Va., and New Orleans, La., also had a dark side: sterilization operations as part of a state eugenics program that grew out of a movement that began in the late 1920s that sought to improve the human gene pool by sterilizing the poor, the mentally ill and others deemed undesirable. One researcher and former professor at St. Augustine’s estimated that at least 11 of those operations occurred at St. Agnes.

For 15 years, St. Augustine’s officials have been looking for money to transform the hospital’s crumbling skeleton into a medical center where students could take pre-med and graduate-level classes and doctors could provide services. School officials also envisioned a museum that would display artifacts from the old hospital.

The project received a shot of adrenaline in 2009 through the efforts of U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, who helped steer federal money to the college. Miller’s support led to the development of a new allied health services program on campus that college officials say will one day be housed in the restored hospital.

‘A tale of two projects’

Redmond described the St. Agnes revitalization as “a tale of two projects.” The first occurred seven years ago when she saw the shell of a building while working in Southeast Raleigh.

“It captured my eye,” she said.

By 2007 Redmond had lined up two private health care businesses who planned to open dialysis and prostate centers in the building before the bottom fell out of the economy. “Everything just stopped,” Redmond said. “We couldn’t find a lender. It wasn’t a viable project.”

After the tornadoes touched down in April of last year, Redmond thought, “there was no way that building is still standing. When I found out it was still there, I said this building needs a new life. It deserves a new life.”

The project took wing when Rex Healthcare signed on as an anchor partner. Rex plans to put primary care and urgent care centers on the first floor, Redmond said, while the second floor would be leased to doctors and other health practitioners and the third floor would be used by St. Aug’s allied health program.

The restoration calls for refurbishing the brick work of the four original walls, replacing the windows and topping it with a modern roof. The construction will focus on building a new facility within the four original walls. Redmond hopes a nearby building will eventually serve as the museum.

Redmond said a community health center that’s convenient to residents could help offset the health disparities in the community and among African Americans.

“May be it could be a place for clinical trials for diabetes, high blood pressure and prostate cancer, diseases most strongly reflected in African Americans,” she said. “If we give this building new life by investing in it, we could be creating a system of services for another 50 years.”

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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