St. Luke’s Hospital was a Denver fixture for over a century, serving the community as one of several hospitals in the capitol. St. Luke’s role in training several generations of doctors and nurses garners historical significance for the building complex. Today, only one of the hospital’s buildings remains standing, and that has been incorporated into an apartment building.
Under the guidance of John Franklin Spalding, an Episcopal bishop for Colorado appointed in 1874, a group of Episcopalians gathered in 1880 to discuss a recent bequest to St. John’s cathedral. Mrs. Tuton, a member of the congregation, had willed two lots that she wanted to be used for a hospital. After due consideration, the group decided to purchase an existing building rather than build one from scratch. The Grandview Hotel had been constructed on the western plains just off Federal Boulevard, in the community of Highlands. The hotel was located on four acres adjacent to a small lake. A failure as a hotel, it briefly served as an asylum for the insane. The group purchased the old hotel, and St. Luke’s Hospital opened in 1881. It was two stories tall, held twenty-one rooms and three wards that held up to sixty patients. The local Episcopal leadership enlisted women to raise funds and to supply most of the daily needs of the new facility. Lavinia Spalding hosted the first meeting of what became the St. Luke’s Ladies’ Aid Society.
St. Luke’s hired its first superintendent as soon as it opened its doors. Reverend George Cornell served as both hospital manager and spiritual guide to patients and staff. He also stretched the finances to cover expenses. In the first months the average of eleven patients was not enough to meet costs. The women went around to friends and church members and came back armed with bread, jam, milk, meat, and other necessities. When they needed bed linens and bandages, they gathered black and white cloth that shopkeepers had used to commemorate the death of President Garfield and sewed the linens themselves. Other donations paid for stoves to heat the building through that first winter and for repairs to the leaky roof. When the hospital needed a horse, Dr. W. H. Buchtel donated one of his.
The hospital’s death rate in the early years hovered at around 12 percent to 15 percent, partly because with such a small number of patients, a few deaths raised the average. The high death rate also arose from the fact that by the time many patients got to a hospital, they were seriously ill. The first two deaths in 1881 were advanced tuberculosis patients. Reverend Cornell reported in 1882 that he had “employed a very trustworthy and efficient nurse” as well as a matron. He hired the nurse because she was trained as a nursing supervisor. The records only show her as “Miss Brown,” and she stayed on for about a year. Even with a professional in charge, staffing was a constant problem at the new hospital. Hired nurses cared for patients, but the profession was undergoing a transition. Denver got its first professional nurse training program at Arapahoe County Hospital in 1887, but there were still not enough trained nurses to go around.
Physicians were also difficult to find. The first resident physician, appointed in 1882, was Dr. C. E. Rivers, who also served as a temporary superintendent. He set up an agreement with Denver University to allow medical students to work with ward patients. This cut the cost to the hospital while giving the students practice with live patients. As the years passed, staff rebelled over the location of St. Luke’s. They disliked driving out onto the plains to see patients and especially did not like going through Denver’s slum, the Bottoms, at night. They lobbied for a better facility with better equipment. At the same time, the board of managers was unhappy with the low number of patients the physicians were assigning to St. Luke’s. The board bid for industrial contracts and acquired patients from the Union Pacific, Rio Grande, and Burlington railroads, increasing the patient load almost enough to make ends meet.
The typhoid fever epidemic of 1887 and continued lobbying from physicians led to a search for a new building. The board wanted to expand on the present site, while the physicians and the Ladies’ Aid Society wanted a central location in Denver. The fact that the women had purchased two lots at Nineteenth Avenue and Pearl Street turned the tide. The board agreed to begin fundraising for a new building at the Pearl Street site. The new St. Luke’s Hospital opened at Nineteenth and Pearl on October 18, 1891. It consisted of three stone buildings: an administrative wing, a kitchen wing, and the patient areas. It had an operating room, drug dispensary, and offices for the chaplain, head nurse, and superintendent. The patients stayed in wards or in private rooms in the main building.
Nurses Training School
In 1892 friends of the hospital raised $13,000 to furnish the third floor as a residence for student nurses. Seventeen young women entered the new St. Luke’s School of Nursing that February. As a depression took hold in 1893, three left to help support their families, and two became sick and had to quit. The remaining twelve looked forward to a two-year program balanced between classroom work and practical experience in the hospital wards. Their duties included cleaning and cooking for the patients as well. For their work, the hospital paid them eight dollars per month during training, and twelve dollars per month after that. By the time of the 1894 graduation, the class had dwindled to eight students, who attended ceremonies at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral.
The class of 1901 included a young woman who would be an important figure in the future of St. Luke’s. Mary Eyre entered the program in 1898, and by 1900 she was not only a senior student but the head night nurse as well. Eyre was the first of St. Luke’s graduates hired as “Directoress of Nurses.” She served from 1901 until 1906. In 1903, one of her contributions was to get an eight-hour workday for nurses. She resigned due to ill health and eventually went on to teach nursing at Pomona College in California. Her successor was another exceptional St. Luke’s graduate. Oca Cushman graduated in 1903 and took over as St. Luke’s director of nurses in 1906. She went on to be the superintendent of the Children’s Hospital from 1909 to 1955.
St. Luke’s continued to expand its operations into the mid-1900s. When the administrative office got a telephone in 1891, every other division wanted one. In 1903 the surgeons asked for a phone on the third floor so they could take calls in surgery. They also asked for an x-ray machine that was promptly donated, but the board declined their request for a professional anesthesiologist in 1905 because it felt that nurses were competent enough to administer anesthetics during surgery. By 1918 it was clear that expansion had to go beyond a few additions. St. Luke’s changed its status from an Episcopal hospital to a general community facility, complete with a new constitution, board of managers, and executive manager. Thomas Rattle stepped in as manager of the new St. Luke’s Hospital Association after replacing Colonel Campbell as superintendent when Campbell died in 1919.
The fall of 1918 brought a shock to Denver—and the entire country—when a fast-moving and deadly influenza pandemic killed thousands. Between October and December, Denver authorities shut down most public functions and facilities in an attempt to stop the contagion. When colder weather hit, the disease cases fell off. Overtaxed medical personnel had a chance to step back and reflect on the toll. One thing they realized was that while Denver had a number of fine medical facilities, there was still an urgent need for growth. Following years of aggressive fundraising, Presbyterian Hospital opened its doors on “Grasshopper Hill” in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on March 17, 1926. The patient capacity was 148 beds in the adult areas and twenty-two bassinets in the nursery.
In 1948 Presbyterian and the University of Denver (DU) began a joint venture with St. Luke’s and the Children’s Hospital to provide additional educational opportunities for area nursing students. After taking their courses at Denver University’s junior college, students could go on toward a degree of Bachelor of Science in Nursing for only fifty more credit hours. The program continued until 1954, when it failed to get North Central accreditation because the university did not have full control. After the formal end of the program in 1956, Presbyterian allowed DU to take over its nursing training program for the next four years. By 1970 the program was struggling, and the new director set up another consortium, this time with Colorado Women’s College. The program ended when Colorado Women’s College closed its doors in 1976.
Between 1942 and the 1970s, St. Luke’s competed not only with Presbyterian but also with St. Joseph, Mercy, and Children’s hospitals for patients. This meant continual upgrades of equipment and facilities. The hospital added a new power plant in 1946, allowing a shift from coal to gas heat. A secondary fuel-oil system provided heat during gas interruptions. New medical developments gave rise to new departments. A donation from the Episcopalian tuberculosis sanatorium, the Oakes Home, paid for a new x-ray machine that produced miniature diagnostic x-rays for tuberculosis detection. The addition of a blood bank in 1950 gave physicians better access to whole blood for their patients. Finally, a new wing opened in January 1953 provided 180 more beds and a new chapel. In June 1961 St. Luke’s opened the region’s first intensive care unit. Dr. John Grow, Sr. pioneered open-heart surgery at St. Luke’s. In 1967 construction began on an additional five-story wing.
By the late 1970s St. Luke’s was having a hard time keeping the budget in the black. Partnerships with other medical organizations seemed like the way to keep expenses down. In 1976 the hospital began talking with Presbyterian to see if merging some services would be cost-effective. By the fall of 1978 representatives of both boards were working seriously to develop a plan. The new facility, Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, would have a combined 1,025 beds, an operating budget of $74 million dollars, and around 1 million square feet of space. The new organization would be the largest medical center in the Rocky Mountain West. The combined Presbyterian/St. Luke’s School of Nursing opened its doors in 1982 and graduated its final class in 1986.
In early 1985 American Medical International (AMI), a giant for-profit medical corporation, made a bid to acquire Presbyterian/St. Luke’s, marking a major shift for the previously nonprofit organization. AMI quickly began expansion plans, including a huge building project that would restructure the Presbyterian site by adding a ten-story tower and remodeling most public spaces. In 1990 departments at St. Luke’s began moving into the new space at Presbyterian. Soon plans were in place to close the St. Luke’s building and consolidate all services at the Presbyterian site. In August 1993 Swedish Medical Center merged with Presbyterian/St. Luke’s to form HealthONE. When Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center sold the St. Luke’s site to Post Properties in the late 1990s, the developer tore down virtually all of the hospital. The only part saved was the 1941 obstetrics wing, incorporated into the new loft complex as the “St. Luke’s Lofts.”
Adapted from Rebecca Hunt, “Healers on the Hill: St. Luke’s and Presbyterian Hospitals of Denver,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 25, no. 3 (2005).