Established east of Denver in 1918, Fitzsimons General Hospital was originally established as an army hospital specializing in treating soldiers infected with tuberculosis during World War I. After struggling with small budgets and the threat of closure, the facility expanded with the addition of a new main building in 1941 and an influx of patients during World War II. Later renamed Fitzsimons Army Hospital and eventually Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, the hospital continued to serve soldiers and veterans after the war, most famously caring for President Dwight D. Eisenhower after he had a heart attack in Denver in 1955. After Fitzsimons was deactivated in 1996, the site became home to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus as well as a medical research park called the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus.
Fighting Tuberculosis at General Hospital No. 21
In the 1900s tuberculosis was a leading cause of army disability discharges. The problem became acute during World War I, stretching the limits of the army’s existing tuberculosis hospitals. In 1918 the army chose Denver as the site of a large new hospital that would specialize in treating soldiers suffering from tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. Local businessmen raised $150,000 to buy property east of the city that formerly belonged to the A. H. Gutheil Nursery. In April the businessmen entered into a ninety-nine-year lease with the army and construction started in May. The hospital, known as General Hospital No. 21, cost $3.2 million. Soon it had eighty-six stucco buildings and capacity for 1,400 patients. It began to receive patients in October 1918, one month before the end of the war.
In 1920 General Hospital No. 21 was renamed to honor Lieutenant William Thomas Fitzsimons, a civilian surgeon serving as an army medical officer who was the first US Army officer killed in World War I. That autumn, Fitzsimons General Hospital became the army’s only hospital focusing on tuberculosis treatment.
Throughout the 1920s, Fitzsimons admitted and discharged about 300 patients per month. It cared for army veterans suffering from tuberculosis and also served as a general hospital for active military personnel and veterans in the Denver area.
Struggling to Survive
During the 1920s Fitzsimons had to cope with tight army budgets, resulting in deferred maintenance. By the early 1930s the facility’s buildings, mostly intended as temporary or semipermanent at best, were falling into disrepair. Just at that moment the Great Depression caused massive budget cuts, leading the US Army’s Office of the Surgeon General to recommend closing Fitzsimons to save money.
Fitzsimons employed more than 1,000 people in the Denver area, however, and eliminating those jobs would have dealt a major blow to Colorado’s economy at the height of the Depression. The state’s congressional delegation, led by Denver representative Lawrence Lewis, fought hard to keep the hospital open. After a few years of barely keeping Fitzsimons in the budget, the army asked for work-relief funds to rebuild and modernize the hospital in 1935. In 1935–36 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) carried out several projects at Fitzsimons, and in 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the hospital and promised it would remain in operation.
After the War Department had committed to improving Fitzsimons, Lewis requested a $2.5 million appropriation for the construction of a new main hospital building. His timing was fortuitous: the army was growing in response to ominous developments abroad, and Denver was being considered as the site of a new Army Air Corps Technical School (later known as Lowry Air Force Base, established in 1937). Perhaps the most important stumbling block to significant federal investment in Fitzsimons was overcome in 1937, when the land was officially turned over to the federal government. This helped ensure the hospital’s future; later that year, Congress approved a large appropriation. The hospital received $3.75 million in Public Works Administration funds, and $300,000 in WPA funds for a new main building intended to be the best tuberculosis treatment center in the United States.
Construction began in August 1938. The original plans called for a five-story structure, but the height of the building eventually doubled during planning and construction as the threat of war increased. The Art Deco building, with a stair-step roofline and a facade of sandstone and buff-colored brick, was designed under the guidance of supervising architect L. M. Leisenring of the Quartermaster General’s office. The design featured many setbacks, projections, and wings, resulting from the need to maximize tuberculosis patients’ access to sunshine and fresh air. The building also included plenty of south-facing solariums and outdoor decks as well as two large dining rooms, a gym, an officers’ clubroom, a post office, and a library.
The main hospital building was dedicated on December 3, 1941. At 290,000 square feet and 608 beds, the building was reportedly the largest structure in Colorado as well as the largest hospital structure ever built by the army. It quickly became a local landmark and the centerpiece of Fitzsimons General Hospital.
World War II and After
Just four days after the dedication of the new main building, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. As the largest and one of the most modern military hospitals in the country, Fitzsimons played a key role in caring for sick and wounded soldiers during the war.
Casualties from Pearl Harbor began to arrive at the hospital on December 17. The facility filled quickly; it soon became apparent that further expansion would be necessary. Many temporary buildings were hastily constructed to increase the hospital’s capacity to roughly 3,500 beds. By 1943 it was the largest military hospital in the world, with 322 buildings on nearly 600 acres, including a pharmacy school, dental school, bakery, barbershop, print shop, post office, fire department, and chapel. In addition to American soldiers, Fitzsimons also cared for German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war who were suffering from tuberculosis.
In the 1950s, as cases of tuberculosis dropped dramatically with improvements in public health and the introduction of antibiotics, Fitzsimons began to focus on treating lung cancer and other chest diseases. It also treated battlefield casualties from the Korean War and, later, the Vietnam War, specializing in soldiers with chest wounds.
Eisenhower’s Heart Attack
In 1955 Fitzsimons was unexpectedly thrust into the national spotlight when President Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack while on vacation in Colorado and spent nearly two months recuperating in the hospital’s main building. On the afternoon of September 23, Eisenhower had begun to feel discomfort after golfing. He woke that night with chest pains. The next day, a cardiogram determined that the president had suffered a major heart attack.
On September 24, Eisenhower was admitted to Fitzsimons, where he stayed on a suite of rooms on the eighth floor of the main hospital building. He was ordered not to resume any work until October 1. In the meantime, an informal committee made up of Vice President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., and Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, kept the government running smoothly.
By October Eisenhower was feeling better and began to hold regular briefings with Adams. Nixon also visited Eisenhower at Fitzsimons. The president celebrated his birthday in the hospital on October 14 and took his first unaided steps since the heart attack on October 25, when he met with a group of reporters on the hospital rooftop. He stayed at the hospital for a few more weeks so that he would not have to be taken out in a wheelchair. He left on November 11, when he was able to walk up the stairs to board his airplane and fly back to Washington.
Closure and Redevelopment
In the 1970s, after the end of the Vietnam War, Fitzsimons had fewer active-duty casualties to care for. It began to focus on treating more military retirees and their dependents. It also continued to support nearby Lowry Air Force Base as well as other army and air force bases in the region, and to serve as an important army medical training center.
By the end of the Cold War in 1991, Fitzsimons was an aging facility not directly associated with any active military installations. As a result, in 1995 it was listed for closure as part of the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure process. Its healthcare responsibilities—including its training schools and labs—were transferred to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and the facility was closed in June 1996. At the time Fitzsimons was one of Aurora’s largest employers, with nearly 3,000 workers, and in 1995 it had generated $328 million in economic activity, leading to concerns about the closure’s effect on the local economy.
After the army left, part of the Fitzsimons campus became home to the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus, a medical research park meant to attract healthcare and bioscience companies, as well as the University of Colorado’s health sciences center, now called the Anschutz Medical Campus, which includes the University of Colorado Hospital, Children’s Hospital Colorado, and five health professional schools. The former main hospital building houses the administrative offices of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Colorado School of Public Health, and several related offices and programs. In 2000 the Eisenhower Suite on the eighth floor was restored to its appearance at the time of President Eisenhower’s recovery and opened to the public as a museum.
In 2008 the redeveloped Fitzsimons campus had 16,000 jobs and generated roughly $3.5 billion for the state’s economy. Aurora has designated the land around Fitzsimons as an urban renewal area targeted for mixed-use commercial, retail, and residential developments in order to support the medical campus. Once the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus are completely built, the area is projected to have more than 40,000 employees.