Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Marine Hospital

This hospital was built to help stop sick sailors from spreading disease in the close confines of freighters and other sailing vessels.

The hospital was authorized by an Act of Congress on Aug. 4, 1854. It opened on the southwest corner of East Jefferson and Mt. Elliott avenues on Nov. 30, 1857, with 40 beds. About 20 patients were immediately transferred from St. Mary's Hospital to the new facility upon its opening.

The building's cornerstone was dated 1855. It was a T-shaped, three-story brick structure with a partially above-grade basement designed by the Detroit firm Anderson & Jordan. The hospital's most handsome feature were its roomy verandas on each floor and on both the front and back of the building. They were outfitted with decorative scroll work and offered sick seamen some fresh air and, if they were on the riverside of the hospital, views of their beloved Detroit River. The building also featured heavy iron girders that supported brick arches.

The hospital cost $80,000 to build, and the 8-acre site was purchased for $23,000. The building was located 225 feet south of East Jefferson, then a country road. At the time of its opening, the hospital was located a mile east outside of the city limits.

"Its spacious and well-kept lawns are the admirations of all visitors," an old postcard of the facility boasted.

To keep the hospital running, the sailors it was built to serve were taxed 20 cents a month for it, like a health care premium, beginning in 1843, and those "hospital dues" were doubled to 40 cents a month in 1870. Any crewmember on board any registered vessel had the fee deducted from their paychecks and collected by their captains. Any sailor needing medical care for at least three months before falling ill was entitled to free care and room and board at the hospital.

Zina Pitcher was the first "physician in charge" when the hospital opened and remained in that position until April 1861. Pitcher had previously been a two-time mayor of Detroit (1840-41 and 1843), and was also a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan and a president of the American Medical Association. From the time of its opening until 1879, the hospital treated nearly 5,000 seamen, averaging 260 a year during that span.

Surgeon W.H.H. Hutton wrote in his "Historical Sketch of the United States Marine Hospital Service at Detroit, Mich." that when he arrived in Detroit on Dec. 8, 1879, to take over the hospital, he found "the sanitary condition of the hospital at that time was abominable and the building generally in a deplorable condition. The physician in charge seldom visited the hospital oftener than once a week, leaving the care to (interns) and steward. Dirth, filth and disorder reigned supreme throughout." He set out to bring "order out of chaos," improving the sanitary conditions, updating plumbing and bathrooms, had hard maple flooring relaid, and tile flooring installed on the lower halls.

With the increase in commerce on the Great Lakes, Hutton's improvements could not have come at a better time. From 1880 to 1895, the hospital served 28,198 seamen, an average of 1,658 per year - a 464 percent increase over its first two decades. The year 1889 alone saw 3,229 sailors treated - more than half the total number seen during its first 22 years.

After World War I, hospital services were extended to include not only Great Lakes sailors but Army and Navy veterans, as well. This was extended even further later to include any federal employee injured on the job. Immigrants were also given physical examinations at the hospital.

For these reasons, a new Marine Hospital was built in 1930 at the foot of Alter Road along the Detroit River, at Windmill Pointe. It cost $600,000 to build, and an annex was tacked on in 1933 at a cost of $235,000.

In the early 1930s, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service took over the federal site, including the former Marine Hospital. A new three-story office building, to serve as an immigration station, opened March 30, 1934, in the vicinity of the Marine Hospital. It was joined by a steam plant building and a garage. The Marine Hospital building was turned into an immigration detention facility. The nurses' residence (which has since been torn down) was became offices for the Border Patrol, and the two-story doctor's residence (also since razed) became the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs Patrol district offices.

The Marine Hospital continued to house detainees into the 1960s, though it is unclear at present time when the building was demolished. The National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the nearby U.S. Immigration Station building says it was torn down in 1962, but the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University has a photo of the structure dated April 8, 1964, of it still standing. Regardless, the former location of the Marine Hospital is now a parking lot. The U.S. still operates immigration operations in the area (now Immigration & Customs Enforcement - or ICE).

The Windmill Pointe Marine Hospital survived several threats of closure in 1953 and 1958, and in 1967, a $1 million program to revitalize and expand the hospital began. This effort included staff increases and the establishment of a pediatric clinic, intensive care unit and psychiatric ward. The plan also called for expanding care to include beneficiaries of Great Lakes sailors, military personnel and their dependents and federal employees.

However, just two years later, Windmill Pointe's facility was converted into an outpatient clinic, ending a 114-year hospital service for sailors. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare cited the fact that only about half of the hospital's 147 beds were being used. At the time of the announcement, it was the only public health service hospital on the Great Lakes, and handled more than 35,000 outpatient visits. The Windmill Pointe Marine Hospital was demolished starting in June 1984.