Cleveland Avenue facility turns 75
The 75th anniversary of a significant Southwest Florida health-care milestone slipped by this past spring virtually undetected. It was on April 18, 1943, that Lee Memorial Hospital moved from its original wooden, two-story home at Victoria and Grand avenues into something grander: a $200,000 brick building on Cleveland Avenue. That site is still home to Lee Memorial Hospital, which has grown from one facility to a regional health care system known today as Lee Health.
Very few people are still around who can remember that spring day in 1943 and attest to its importance.
Lee Health today encompasses multiple facilities at several locations, but in its early days Lee Memorial was just one hospital and one hospital only. When the original hospital opened in 1916 it had only 10 beds.
That was during World War I. By the time the hospital moved to Cleveland Avenue 27 years later, World War II had engulfed the globe, and Lee County was home to two aviation training bases: Buckingham Army Air Field and Page Field. Sleepy and remote Fort Myers was growing as thousands of servicemen flocked to town to learn how to fly airplanes and operate guns on those planes.
Although no bridge yet existed connecting Sanibel Island to the mainland, and the communities of Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres were both more than a decade away from their founding, change and growth were coming.
One of the symbols of that change and growth was the new hospital, which the The News-Press described as a “handsome structure of buff brick on Cleveland Avenue near Katherine Street.”
As detailed in Lee Health’s own official history published in 2016, The News-Press reporter Rufe Daughtrey was given a tour before the grand opening. Here’s how Daughtrey described the hospital: “The new hospital out on Cleveland Avenue is just about the nicest place imaginable to be sick in. It’s got just about everything from a magnificent sundeck to a cozy parlor where you can play cards in front of a log fire on a chilly evening.”
He went on to write: “Here is how the plant looked on a rehearsal tour yesterday. To begin with, the front is in back and the back is in front. In other words, that side facing Cleveland Avenue is in the back. To get to the front you follow a winding road around under the pines to the offside of the building.
“From your car you step onto a narrow porch and into the big reception room. That’s the room that has the old-
The operating table is something like a glorified barber chair. With it, doctors can stand you on your head, double you into a ball or turn you sideways.” —Rufe Daughtrey, The News-Press, 1943
fashioned fireplace and would make a good place for get-togethers on chill evenings. Joining the reception is the bookkeeper’s office and the office of the superintendent of nurses.”
Daughtrey added, “And last but not least is the operating room. This is the pride and joy of the new hospital. It really is an eyeful. Walls and floors to the ceiling are a restful green. In the center is the latest in operating tables where doctors can cut you open and with special lights so they can see what makes you tick.
“The operating table is something like a glorified barber chair. With it, doctors can stand you on your head, double you into a ball or turn you sideways. After seeing this you may be glad you can walk out under your own power.”
What would Daughtrey say if he came back now and could see how medicine and the hospital have evolved?
In 1943, Lee Memorial didn’t have air conditioning. There weren’t computers or arthroscopic procedures or MRIs or so much of what we associate with medicine in the 21st century.
Although the new brick hospital that opened in 1943 may seem primitive in 2018, it was a huge event in local history. About 1,000 people flocked to the site for a grand-opening ceremony. Locals knew the opening had been a long time in coming. The Great Depression had slowed funding for the hospital to what historian Karl H. Grismer called a “dribble” in his 1949 book, The Story of Fort Myers.
Fundraising began in 1925, but the “dribble” of funds slowed down construction so much that residents referred to it as a “brick-a-day hospital.”
Eventually, of course, the money came and so did the bricks and a significant milestone in Southwest Florida medical care.
A patient room in Lee Memorial Hospital. Below, groundbreaking in the late 1930s for the hospital on Cleveland Avenue (above), which opened in 1943.