Some say charity begins at home, but these days Charity is up in the air. Big Charity, that is. The legendary 20-story hospital on Tulane Avenue has been empty since the flooding that followed Katrina, and is now in the eye of a storm of another sort, this one political and economic. State officials say the storm dealt the building a death sentence and want it replaced with a modern facility. Some doctors who had worked at Charity say there is nothing wrong with it that couldn't be repaired or renovated, and that a group of them had been cleaning it up when state officials condemned the building and ordered them out. Some say Katrina is just the latest excuse on the part of a state medical system that has long wanted it replaced, and now wants FEMA to pay for it.
Whatever the merits of the opposing arguments, Charity has for ages been an important part of this city's social and aesthetic fabric. A metal grill above the entrance, replete with Art Deco figures, sets the tone. Comprised of a stylized figure and a tree-of-life sprouting oil wells flanked by Louisiana working folk steering ships, cutting cane and casting shrimp nets, it might just as easily have included the untold musicians, chefs and artists who were born there. Overall, the building is a monument to Louisiana people and the social safety net pioneered by Huey Long, Franklin Roosevelt and the Daughters of Charity nuns.
Public service is the dominant theme of design details that include a series of bas reliefs replete with doctors, nurses and nuns treating patients, or researchers in lab coats peering into microscopes. An enigmatic medallion features a nurse and a nature goddess holding a model of the building between them. In fact, the building resulted from the efforts of Sister Stanislaus, an administrator who convinced President Roosevelt of the dire need for a new facility during a presidential visit. When completed in 1939, it was America's second largest hospital and the newest version of the original Charity founded in 1736.
That's right, 1736. Charity (along with New York's Bellevue) is the oldest in the land. Its massive, slightly pregnant, look is appropriate for the mother of all American hospitals. (If retired, it probably ought to be clad in bronze and left as the world's largest sculpture.) We took it for granted from appearing in so many crime reports about gunshot victims, but it was already a century old when it moved to its current location in 1834 -- years before Atlanta even became a city. And it is not only one of Louisiana's most important Art Deco landmarks but also, along with the state capital in Baton Rouge, one of its two biggest.
Beyond its architectural interest, it also housed the best trauma center in the region, and was indispensable to the 20 percent of Louisianians who lack health insurance. But that may be the crux of the matter. State officials consider Charity a money pit and want a facility that could also attract private (read "paying") patients. After the storm, its functions were transferred to a tent at the Convention Center, a move some critics compared to Tom Benson's claim that Katrina had destroyed the Saints training facility. Today, no one knows what will become of it. Whether Charity is to be renovated, replaced, or moved to Elmwood Medical Center or St. Charles General Hospital, as some recent rumors suggest, is apparently still being decided by state and federal authorities.
When I drove by there recently, lights were on inside the building and work crews were engaged in debris removal. Removing debris from a site facing demolition might not seem to make sense, but sense isn't what it used to be around here, and nobody was able to say what was actually going on. All we really know is that the state wants a new facility, but money will be the determining factor and FEMA and the feds will make the final decision.
A vending-machine service agent leaving the building probably spoke for a lot of local folk when he said, "I just hope they start renovating it soon." He got a little misty eyed as he continued, "There is something about this place. It's important, people really love it, and New Orleans wouldn't be the same without it."
- A metal grill above the entrance to Charity Hospital features stylized Louisiania farmers and fishermen, but it might just as easily celebrate all the great musicians, artists and chefs who were born there.