February 25, 2018

Reviving a Historic Dallas Hospital

The two-story brick building on a raggedy stretch of Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard in South Dallas is an undistinguished shabby box. Simple murals of African American nurses and doctors painted on the street-facing wall are worn. Windows are boarded up. Double doors are held closed with a rusty chain and padlock.

Little about this the 18,000-square-foot structure seems worth saving, but for its history. At one time, this was the Forest Avenue Hospital, one of six African American-owned hospitals in the city. The facility, which went through various iterations over the years, closed for good in 1984. Now, thanks to a daughter of South Dallas, it is getting a half-million dollar makeover to become a community wellness center for an underserved community.

Dr. Michelle Morgan, who owns a small chain of dental clinics, was born at a nearby hospital and grew up in South Dallas. She wanted to give back to the economically overlooked area and its people by providing a facility focused on their particular needs. Initially she was considering another nearby building, but when that fell through, a friend suggested the derelict former hospital. In 2016, Morgan purchased the building for $200,000.

“I’m very spiritually inspired and motivated,” Morgan says. “The building and its history accessed a very special place in my heart. It has kind of grown into what it was meant to be—that is, to serve the community in a specific capacity, because the community is unique in its health-care needs.”

Mural on the exterior of the Forest Avenue Hospital in Dallas.

photo by: Sophia Dembling

The building opened to serve the African American community’s health care needs in 1964. At that time, segregation was still widespread and many hospitals would not admit African American patients or allow African American doctors to practice at their facilities. In response, entrepreneurs and medical practitioners of color started opening their own hospitals—sometimes just rooms in a doctor’s home. The earliest African American hospitals in Dallas, established in the early 1900s, were helped along by a tuberculosis outbreak, when the white population realized that they could not stop the disease among themselves unless they helped contain it among their African American cooks, maids, chauffeurs, and other household help.

Forest Avenue Hospital was last of these facilities to open in Dallas. It was built on what was then Forest Avenue (the name was changed in 1983), at one time the city’s southern limit and an unincorporated area where African Americans were permitted to own property.

The origins of the hospital are difficult to pin down, although a recent article in The Dallas Morning News identified some of the co-founders as surgeon Edward J. Mason, who served his community—charging just $1 for school physicals, for example—until his murder in 1999; Dr. Emmet Conrad, who was also the first African American elected to the Dallas Independent School District’s board of trustees; anesthesiologist Judge. E. Page; and the Rev. Jesse L. Lott, who also owned a mortuary.

These are said to be the faces on the building’s facade, painted in 1978 as part of a federal manpower training program for low-income teens. (“It’s been a very exciting project,” said the Southern Methodist University senior who oversaw the mural on the hospital building in an April 20, 1978 article in the Dallas Morning News. "... the toughest part in some cases has been convincing the building owners to allow us to paint the murals. Some of them were rather concerned at first, wondering what we’d paint.”)

The murals may or may not be preserved as the building is repurposed, says Paul Chapel, architect on the project. “We’re wrestling a little bit with the murals.” The building’s history may ultimately be honored with a lobby display of some kind.

While plans for the building are still being formulated, funding is already in place: In a contest modeled after Shark Tank, Morgan beat out 30 competitors to win $500,000 for the project from the Real Estate Investment Council Community Fund. Additional money has been promised in the case of cost overruns during construction.

History helped Morgan in the competition. “The fact that it has history, and I’m part of that history, born there in that neighborhood, brought a certain excitement and personal goodwill that extended beyond just an average business venture,” she says.

Morgan’s passion for the project easily persuaded Chapel to join the effort. “I’m at the point in my career where it’s never about the project, it’s about the people,” he says. “She was so personally wanting to help. She’s midlife, like me—I could so relate to that. Wondering is there something I could be doing, that I should be doing? There’s nothing about this that’s not about just wanting to be a part of this team.”

The building was gutted at some point before Morgan purchased it, and it’s suffered from a leaky roof and age, but it’s essentially sound. It was built in several phases: the first two in steel and low-grade masonry, and a last in wood construction, which will be demolished. Work should start this summer. The completed building will be about 15,000 square feet.

The interior will be determined in part by who leases space in it, so that offices may be customized for various types of health practitioners. The goal for the project is to both respect the history of the building and create an up-to-date facility for an underserved neighborhood.

“We want a modern, clean, efficient, elegant building that looks medical in its initial appearance and feels like something you would see in other parts of town,” says Chapel. “We’re tying ourselves to the past but at the same time, we’re trying to move thinking towards the future.”

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.


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