Martha Jefferson: The hospital that ate my neighborhood
The countdown is on: Martha Jefferson Hospital is moving to its Pantops site, scheduled to open August 28. And while employees agonize over suspended vacations– six weeks before and four weeks after– many "old campus" neighbors are breathing sighs of relief, as the arrival of Octagon Partners and the CFA Institute have quelled fears of an abandoned white elephant or a brash new neighbor. Was the worry needless? Perhaps the hospital itself is a case in point. Martha Jefferson was the hospital that ate my neighborhood.
I grew up two blocks away and knew this area well, as my brothers and I trudged these streets daily for over four years delivering the Daily Progress. In the 1950s, my parents settled into an 1884 farmhouse on Lexington Avenue. Until the 1920s, this had been a rural area, despite what now seems like mere steps from Downtown. The C&O Railroad– the one that separates Belmont from Downtown– would bring engineers, conductors, and brakemen to houses built for them on Lexington (and brownstone walls from that time still grace many front yards in the 500 block).
In my childhood, the filling station at the intersection where Ninth and High Streets met with Lexington was the Tarleton Oak Esso. What's now a Citgo (though still bearing the Tarleton Oak name) was two blocks from the hospital, which was contained in one city block bounded by Locust Avenue, High Street, Jackson Street, and Taylor Street.
Never heard of Jackson and Taylor Streets? That’s because various MJH expansions beginning in the 70s turned them into vague memories. Nine houses were lost on those two streets and many more were taken from High, Lexington, and Locust– over twenty-five homes.
The houses on Jackson Street fell first. The last of the razings occurred in the early '90s on the east side of the 400 block of Lexington. (That last push afforded patients a wonderful– if not particularly encouraging– view of historic Maplewood Cemetery.)
The memory of Taylor Street is captured in a monument placed by MJH along Lexington. The street was named after a freed slave who bought a nearby parcel of land in the area after the Civil War. According to the plaque, there were still descendants of the his family living nearby when the marker was erected in 1993. It’s a nice gesture to leave a plaque when you remove a street of historical significance.
I am not criticizing the Martha Jefferson Hospital. This all happened in the name of progress and before citizens learned to use NIMBY as a powerful piece of persuasion. Attempts at compromise were made. For instance, the Hospital preserved some of the Craftsman-style houses on Locust, moved one historic house to prevent demolition, and even offered a rock house (436 Lexington) to anyone who would remove it. Nobody did.
In all fairness, I must admit that I am a Virginian in the sense of the famous joke: How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Four; one to change the light bulb and three to talk about how good the old one was.
Virginians are more apt to focus on the bucolic neighborhood that was: towering trees, interesting old houses with large front porches and backyard gardens, and two uncovered creeks complete with salamanders and crawfish. A Virginian would bemoan the fact that many of the trees are gone, the nearby houses and gardens erased, and both creeks covered. (Did you know that the MJH parking garage stands atop one of them?)
On other side of the coin, Martha Jefferson Hospital, as its website says, "is a not-for-profit, community hospital that was founded in 1903 by seven local physicians interested in providing quality care,” and even though now owned by regional powerhouse Sentara, it has served us well. With over 450 physicians, it makes many "Top Hospitals" lists and offers some of the world's more innovative treatments. It’s also where I was born, had my tonsils removed, had my head sewed up, and where I visited countless friends and relatives. I carry no grudge.
Who’s to say what would have happened to the neighborhood had the hospital not been there? Would the area still be residential? Maybe some of the houses would have been razed for apartments– or for converted to businesses like many of the surrounding dwellings?
For every gain, something is lost. So appreciate your surroundings while you have them. Every wooded lot, cow pasture, old neighborhood, park, or creek can be enjoyed– now– while you have it. It’ll be too late when it becomes a shopping mall, a new hospital, a university building, a parkway, or a bypass.
I told you I was a Virginian.
The last of Carroll Trainum's essays was his exploration of "useless" information.