Jefferson Davis Hospital (Elder Street Lofts)
1101 Elder Street
For years a deserted, vandalized building caught the attention of motorists driving past it on I-45 near downtown. Many undoubtedly were curious about what this once-stately structure had been and, in a city slow to preserve its past, were puzzled that it was still standing. Stories circulated that it was haunted, not only because of its ghostly appearance but also because of the cemetery lying beneath it. Finally, in 2004, Jefferson Davis Hospital was rescued by Avenue CDC, a Houston non-profit organization dedicated to providing affordable housing. Today the former charity hospital again assumes its regal stance as home to dozens of Houstonians.
Jefferson Davis Hospital opened in 1925 as Houston’s first permanent publicly-owned health facility to accept indigent patients. W. A. Dowdy, Architect for the City of Houston, designed the structure. Russell Brown Company was the contractor for the $400,000 project, which met with controversy in the very early stages over the site selection. The property of choice had been a City cemetery from 1840 until it was officially closed in 1879, although family burials continued. Many of the graves—and there were thousands—were unmarked ones, including victims of yellow fever and cholera epidemics. There were also numerous graves of Civil War veterans. Over the years the old cemetery faded from public consciousness and suffered from neglect. To defuse the controversy in 1924, the building’s basement was placed above ground to leave graves undisturbed and the hospital was named for Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy. Although many graves were relocated, it was later discovered that there was no widespread removal of remains. This would not happen today with increased sensitivity to burial sites and more stringent legal barriers to cemetery intrusion. Nevertheless, it remains a stain on the pages of our city’s history.
The building’s main entrance has a cast stone portico supported by monumental fluted Ionic capitals and framed by Ionic fluted pilasters. The cast stone detailing and brick corner quoins, along with the portico, are all elements of the Classical Revival style popular in the early 20th century. Other classical elements include keystones over the basement windows and the pedimented entry doors at the basement level. In contrast to the handsomely detailed façade, the 240-bed interior was plain and unadorned, considered appropriate at that time for a charity hospital. Local preservation specialist Anna Mod, who researched the hospital and ensured that the redevelopment adhered to historic preservation standards, noted that the building was quite modern when constructed and incorporated many architectural elements then popular in hospital design, including an emphasis on sunlight and ventilation. Its location on a slight ridge enhanced the effect of the prevailing breezes. Architect Dowdy took advantage of this feature by including two screened fresh-air balconies on the second and third floors, while the children’s area had access to a rooftop garden and playground.
The hospital was short-lived as a major medical facility. After a new Jefferson Davis Hospital was built in 1939 on Buffalo Drive (now Allen Parkway), the older structure was used for related medical purposes and finally served as a records storage facility for the Harris County Hospital District. Then for two decades, it remained empty and in total disrepair. (Ironically, the 1939 Jeff Davis was razed in 1999 for the new Federal Reserve Building to be erected on the site.) Avenue CDC and its partner, Artspace Projects Inc. of Minneapolis, were carefully monitored by the U.S. Department of the Interior through the Texas Historical Commission. They were required to maintain the overall footprint of the interior space and to restore such elements as the plaster walls, the curved-cornered interior window frames and the modillion blocks at the eaves. Many of the exterior bricks had to be replaced and the walls repointed. The roof, originally tile, was replicated with asphalt of a similar color. The most difficult aspect of the project dealt with the cemetery site. Since the site was listed as a State Archaeological Landmark in 1995, an archaeological survey of the property had to precede any actual construction to be sure that existing graves were not disturbed.
Elder Street Lofts, the structure’s name in its 21st century reincarnation, contains 34 residential/studio units. The architect, W. O. Neuhaus and Associates, retained the original terrazzo floors, high ceilings and large window openings. The exposed concrete ceilings are crisscrossed with an intricate weaving of utility conduits and are in sharp contrast to the occasional isolated architectural feature. The units were originally intended only for artists’ occupancy, but the project is now open to the community-at large. Standing on the front portico provides a spectacular view of Houston’s skyline. This experience reinforces the reality that historic properties can be successfully repurposed and preserved to enhance the cultural and economic vitality of the surrounding community.