Historic Detroit

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Deaconess Hospital

Deaconess Hospital was one of several hospitals built along Detroit's East Jefferson corridor.

The first Deaconess Hospital in Detroit was founded by the congregation of the Evangelical Synod of North America, which leased a three-story frame house at what is now 517 Beaufait (199 Beaufait at the time). The hospital would be devoted primarily to "the German element in the city," the Detroit Free Press reported Nov. 24, 1894. The hospital initially had accommodations for only 20 patients, opening to the public for inspection on Dec. 17, 1894, and to patients the following day. Trained deaconess nurses of the Missionary Society of Light and Hope of Chicago initially served patients.

"Our work is strictly undenomenational, and our hospital is open to all except patients with contagious diseases," the Rev. J.A. Sprunger of the Mennonite church and president of the Light and Hope society, told the Free Press for a Dec. 12, 1894, story ahead of the hospital's opening. "We turn nobody away. Those who can pay full price are expected to, but those who can pay but half, or nothing, are just as welcome."

But Detroit's first Deaconess Hospital would not last long.

The Society of Light and Hope had been founded with the devotion to aiding "suffering humanity, particularly of the gentler sex," the Free Press noted Feb. 11, 1896, though the hospital served both men and women. A little more than a year after opening the hospital, the Society decided "from information brought to them by trustworthy people, that it could be of far more value to the world as a means of rescuing fallen women, especially those of tender years."

Hospital services were abandoned and the house rearranged to provide living quarters for up to 15 "young women who have been treading the dangerous path."

"It is the Lord's work and he is taking care of us," Miss M.D. Frecke told the paper for that Feb. 11, 1896, article. "Strange as it may seem, since the building was given over to our use a year ago, we have had no aid from outsiders except a few voluntary contributions at the start, and the donation of sewing by some German church ladies. From the poor who have been unable to pay, we have asked nothing, and they have had as good care as have those who were able to give us something in return. On that basis, it will be managed under the new plan, to do night missionary work among the fallen women of Detroit and in doing so we will have to visit the very houses in which they live. We will talk to them, pray with them and in every way try to induce them to lead better lives."

Detroit's second Deaconess

Enthusiasm and advocacy for giving a Deaconess hospital another go in Detroit had been gaining steam ahead of the start of the biennial national convention of the Deaconess' Association of the German Evangelical Synod of North America on July 21, 1914, at St. Matthews German Evangelical Church at Concord and Stuart avenues. There, the Evangelical churches of Detroit, which already ran a home for orphans on West Grand Boulevard, resolved that they would make it happen. Though it would take a few years to accomplish their goal.

In 1917, the Evangelical Deaconess' Association of Detroit bought the Cooper residence, an old mansion at what is now 3245 E. Jefferson Ave. (originally 1015 E. Jefferson), just east of McDougall Street. The home was designed by Elijah E. Myers, the architect of the Michigan State Capitol, for the Rev. David M. Cooper and built in 1893. The hospital would be dedicated on Dec. 16, 1917. But it would not be enough to meet a growing Detroit's need for hospital beds. The Detroit News noted in its Nov. 5, 1919, edition that the average number of hospital beds for American cities was six beds for every 1,000 people. Detroit had only three, meaning it was 4,000 beds short. A fund-raising effort began to expand Deaconess and other hospitals. A new addition opened Jan. 6, 1922, bringing Deaconess' capacity up to 110 patients and adding labs for blood work, X-rays and more. In 1923, the Detroit firm Mildner & Eisen was hired to design a nurses home for Deaconess.

With advances in medical technology and needs, as well as continuing growth of the city's population, Deaconess set out on a major expansion effort. On July 10, 1936, it was announced that the old facade would be torn off the hospital and replaced with a four-story addition. Work on the $300,000 addition was begun on Sept. 1, 1936, with money raised through the sale of five-year bonds offered through Evangelical churches across the state. This new main building, also designed by Mildner & Eisen, was dedicated July 18, 1937. It added three operating rooms and 70 new beds, bringing the hospital's capacity to 200.

Yet another significant addition to the hospital was dedicated in December 1957. Bennett & Straight was the architectural firm for the project.

Mergers and deacquisitions

Deaconess Hospital merged with St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in 1978, becoming Samaritan Health Center (later Mercy Hospital). The old Deaconess remained open, however, as the Deaconess Unit of Samaritan Health Center. But things changed following Samaritan's opening of an $86 million health center with 375 beds and a 31-acre main campus at 5555 Conner Ave. in the fall of 1984.

The old Deaconess on East Jefferson was closed Oct. 6, 1984. However, the building found new life, though it would be shortlived. In 1985, the Michigan Health Care Corp. reopened the building as its Lakeshore Unit. It also operated a children's center out of the building.

But on Nov. 6, 1987, Lakeshore folded. The 35-bed mental health facility was shuttered because of a lack of money from the state Medicaid program, Lakeshore officials told The Detroit News. Thirty patients were transferred; 75 employees were laid off.

"The cash-flow problem results from the inability of the state Medicaid program to release funds because of a legislative battle," The News wrote the following day. Then-Gov. James Blanchard had vetoed the funds from the state budget, leaving hospitals, pharmacists, nursing homes and other providers of health care services unable to tap $50 million in Medicaid payments for more than a month. The same legislative stalemate also closed New Center Hospital that same November.

The former Deaconess building stood until at least 1990. The Free Press noted in October 1989 that "Deaconess Hospital sits empty and boarded up, lifeless except for a few wild red roses growing on one side of the building." The 95,000-square-foot building was marketed for sale in December 1989 as being along the "pathway of progress." Similar ads for the property ran until late March 1990, then stopped, either because Realtors gave up or it was decided that the property would be easier to sell as vacant land.

Either way, it would be more than a decade before the site found a taker.

On May 19, 2004, Michigan Basic Property Insurance Association broke ground on a $6 million, 40,000-square-foot headquarters on the vacant site that was once home to Deaconess. The new building was designed by the Southfield, Mich.-based Dorchen/Martin Associations Inc;. J.M. Olson Corp. of St. Clair Shores was the construction manager. The building opened in 2005. The insurer remained in the building until at least 2018. The Detroit Health Department also had offices there. But in 2021, the insurer's name came off the building, and it appeared vacant in April 2022.

Last updated 02/06/2022