Leaving a void
Demolition of St. James Hospital will create a hole in the heart of Chicago Heights
Msharing any people are
stories online about their personal and family connections to the former St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights.
Franciscan Health shuttered the century-old hospital in early September. Since then, people have regularly commented on social media posts about their links to the facility.
“I had six births there,” a woman wrote last week. “Four surger(ies) from a car accident and three other surger(ies) plus family and friends that passed away and people I visited so, yeah, lots of memories.”
The 11-acre site of the 312-bed hospital at 1423 Chicago Road is in the heart of Chicago Heights. The Chicago Heights Public Library, Chicago Heights Park District headquarters and St. Agnes Catholic Church are located right across the street.
Such institutions as City Hall, Washington-McKinley Elementary School and the Chicago Heights School District 170 administration center are located just down the block along Chicago Road.
The hospital was at the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and Illinois Highway 1,
better known as Lincoln and Dixie highways, which led to Chicago Heights claiming itself as “The Crossroads of the Nation.”
“(The closing) was a big and very disappointing loss to Chicago Heights and the surrounding communities,” a man wrote in a social media discussion.
Community members have had more than three years to digest news of plans to close the facility. Franciscan Health, which owns the property, said in 2016 it planned to invest $115 million to expand its hospital in Olympia Fields. State regulators approved a restructuring plan in early 2016.
Now, a chain-link fence surrounds the St. James building and demolition of the sprawling, seven-story structure is imminent. People sharing their memories of St. James often do so with a bittersweet mix of nostalgia and communal loss.
It seems many of Chicago Heights’ nearly 30,000 residents share a connection to St. James, as do many people in such surrounding communities as Glenwood, Ford Heights, South Chicago Heights, Steger, Park Forest, Richton Park, Sauk Village, Lynwood, Thornton and other towns.
“Is this where Grandma was a nurse?” a woman wrote on Facebook, tagging an apparent relative in the conversation.
“Dietician’s aide,” the relative responded.
In a recent group discussion, several people expressed a desire to obtain one or more bricks from the hospital building as demolition proceeds.
“How many thousands of people would pay to have one of those bricks? I would,” a man wrote in the discussion.
I reached out to Franciscan Health to ask about the bricks.
“Franciscan Health is fully aware of the close relationship it has nurtured with the community for more than 100 years,” spokeswoman Maria Ramos said. “That’s why we’ve planned to set aside several hundred bricks during the demolition process. We are currently working on the best way to make those bricks available to members of the community.”
Last week, an area resident started a thread online about a tattered American flag flying from a pole on the property, near a parking garage. The man expressed a desire to see the flag retired with dignity, perhaps by someone affiliated with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post or other veterans’ group.
“It is no longer in a displayable status. I’m certain soon power will be off at night not allowing a proper lighting at night,” the resident wrote, adding that he was a member of a veterans’ organization in a different town.
When I visited the site on Tuesday, the flag had been removed from the pole.
“When we recently became aware of this concern, Franciscan Health took immediate action to have the flag removed and contacted the local VFW to help us retire the flag properly,” Ramos said.
Some people inquired about removal of asbestos from the building.
“The demolition is being performed with an emphasis on safety,” Ramos said. Franciscan Health has contracted with Chicagobased Heneghan Wrecking Co., whose extensive demolition experience includes work on Rush Medical Center and the former Michael Reese Hospital.
“The project will diligently follow all of the appropriate work practice standards designed to minimize the release of contaminants,” Ramos said.
The city of Chicago Heights responded to my requests for information about the demolition with a statement attributed to Mayor David Gonzalez.
“The city’s Code Enforcement, Engineering and Public Works Department have personnel on site on a daily basis to monitor construction traffic, site security, debris and storm sewer utility protection,” the statement read.
Franciscan Health and its contractors obtained all necessary city, county and state permits for demolition, asbestos abatement, underground storage tank removal and traffic control along state routes, the city said.
“We look forward to continue our productive relationship with the project managers throughout the demolition process, which we envision being completed on or around November 2019,” the city said.
When demolition is complete, an 11-acre vacant site will be left in the center of Chicago Heights. Franciscan Health operates an urgent care facility at 30 E. 15th St., just east of the St. James site. I asked about future plans for the hospital property.
“Throughout the consolidation initiative, we have worked with Chicago Heights city officials and have given serious consideration to possible sale and lease opportunities,” Ramos said. “It has always been our intention to provide for the best possible re-use of this property for the betterment of the community.”
The statement attributed to Gonzalez did not address my inquiry about how the city would like to see the property redeveloped or what potential redevelopment options would be considered.
On social media, a woman remarked that the demolition symbolized decay throughout the region.
“My brother and I were born in this hospital, my paternal granny was a practical nurse there and I was a candy striper,” she wrote. “This bodes badly for the future of our dying community and south Chicago in general.”
Another woman who said she worked as a nurse at St. James wrote about how many families experienced pivotal moments in their lives within the hospital’s walls.
“St. James, you will be missed but will have a special part in the hearts of those you healed and comforted, helped bring new life to the world, and prepared those for their heavenly reward,” she wrote.
A chain-link fence surrounds the main entrance to the shuttered former St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights on Tuesday. The demolition process is expected to take up to a year to complete.
The seven-story former St. James Hospital casts an imposing presence along Chicago Avenue in downtown Chicago Heights on Tuesday. Demolition of the shuttered hospital is expected to get underway and take up to a year to complete.