First Black Hospital In Kansas City Is Now On Life Support

Aug 7, 2017

Vacant since 1972, the first black-owned hospital in Kansas City – where black doctors and nurses could practice medicine and receive advanced clinical training – sits decaying under 45 years of neglect.

Once a triumph of community-wide cooperation, the Wheatley-Provident Hospital remains on the city's dangerous buildings list for an eighth year. Absent a plan for its rehabilitation, it could be demolished by 2019.

In summer, a battered barbed wire fence surrounding the historic property at 1826 Forest Avenue disappears under green and poisonous vines. The vines spiral up relentlessly, covering fence and walkway and spreading through a field once planned for a nursing school expansion but now a bed of noxious weeds.

Some of the vines have latched on to the limestone facade, growing toward a stone parapet over the century-old front door, which is now boarded. The words "Wheatley Provident Hospital" are still visible on the stone sign but faded like the memory of clinics, seminars, consultations, and surgeries that took place here from 1918 through 1972.

"It's kind of hard to imagine the way it sits now, but it was definitely a bustling area," says Brad Wolf, the city's historic preservation officer.

The view from Forest Avenue, looking southwest.
Credit Jennifer Tufts / KCUR 89.3

In photographs from a 1940s tax assessment, the hospital's walls peek out from the middle of a dense block, a mixed-use subdivision called Victor Place, with apartments, duplexes, a large corner drug store and various warehouses. Then the hospital, located a block east of Troost Avenue and three blocks south of Vine Street, sat at the edge of a burgeoning African American community, separated by Jim Crow laws from white Kansas City for much of the 20th century.

‘Truly dangerous’

When Dr. J. Edward Perry moved to Kansas City in 1903, there were 16 beds available at the city hospital for "non-white patients" and no other facilities serving the 23,566 minority residents in the city. Perry, an African American physician, bought a home at 1214 Vine and began seeing patients in his front room.

J. Edward Perry founded Wheatley-Provident Hospital a century ago.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

"The health of my people weighed heavy on my heart," Perry wrote in an unpublished memoir, "Forty Cords of Wood."

But now the hospital he established, which eventually moved to 1826 Forest Avenue, is threatened by the city's renewed commitment to demolish dangerous buildings. Similar plans have been made in the past, but this time the commitment comes with a $10 million-dollar budget to fund demolitions, which cost about $10,000 per building.

"We didn't have enough money to take the hospital down in the past, but with the demolition initiative, now we do," says Shocky Franciscus, manager of the dangerous buildings list.

Jim Clark and structural engineer Mike Falbe plan to inspect the hospital this week. Their findings will inform a demolition order, which, if issued, will require the owner to demolish or repair the property in 30 days. If the owner fails to comply, the city will pay for the demolition.

"We put a lien against the property to try and recoup the costs of demolition from a negligent owner," says Franciscus.

In 2007, Wolf appealed to the city's Historic Preservation Commission to add the Wheatley-Provident Hospital to the Kansas City Register of Historic Places. His case, which notes the hospital's importance to the community and its association with founder Perry, "was an effort to save the building from demolition," Wolf says.  

But continued neglect decade after decade makes the building now “truly dangerous," Franciscus says. "Parts of floors are completely collapsed. The interior wood is rotted. The roof doesn't exist in some places. The building has taken on water for years, and that takes a toll."

Baldwin City, Kansas, resident Mark A. Shay has owned the building since 1986, when he bought it from Kansas City real estate developer Mel Mallin, according to property records. The building has been for sale or option since the 1990s.

Shay did not respond to numerous attempts to reach him.

"The building has been for sale forever," says real estate agent Tim Gates, who represents Shay.

The pediatric ward of Wheatley-Provident Hospital in a photo taken in the 1930s.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

The Jackson County Assessor's office valued the building at $84,567 in 2017, but Shay is asking $250,000, a $600,000 reduction from his asking price two years ago. Still, that price is too high, says Dalena Taylor, director of the city's neighborhood preservation division.

“He is negotiating a very high price," Taylor says. "He thinks he has a gold mine on a hill, so to speak."

Shay was able to secure a temporary lease on the building for Dr. Deadly's Haunted Hospital from 1992 to 1996.

In a blog about 1990s haunted houses, Darren Hinesley, a haunted house designer, says the building “still contained original gurneys and equipment from when it had served patients. It was by far one of the creepiest locations I had ever worked in."

Code violations

According to public records, the property has been in violation of city nuisance and property maintenance codes for years. Taylor's codes enforcement officers have issued warnings for "rank weeds, unattended growth, litter, trash, refuse, and rubbish" almost monthly for five years, but Shay "doesn't respond to tickets or anything else,” Taylor says.

"Actually," she adds, "since he lives in Baldwin City, Kansas - out of state - he doesn't get tickets. He gets citations."

"I don't understand how the owner can, in good conscience, leave that building in the condition it is in," Taylor says. "Have you seen it? The building continues to fall apart and it affects the safety, health, and welfare of the public."

"We would hope that the city would consider other alternatives to demolition," says Lisa Briscoe, executive director of Historic Kansas City (Historic KC), a local non-profit that advocates for historic preservation.

Architect's drawing of a proposed addition to Wheatley-Provident Hospital.
Credit Missouri State Historical Society

Historic KC every year publishes a "most endangered buildings" list, which calls attention to properties of historical significance that are vulnerable to demolition. The Wheatley-Provident Hospital has been on the list since 2012 and is part of a broader endangered district, which Historic KC calls "18th and Vine and African American Heritage Sites." 

Shay could save Wheatley-Provident Hospital from demolition if he presented a thorough plan for its rehabilitation and reuse, Taylor says.

"There are challenges," Wolf says. "You can have a building that is very significant, but if it’s in an area that’s not developing, then there are challenges. The area always comes up in planning meetings when we talk about how to connect 18th and Vine to the Crossroads, but nobody has really figured out what that area is going to look like."

The city plans to spend $18 million dollars to stabilize the nearby Historic Jazz District at 18th and Vine. “If that development goes well,” Wolf says, “then we can think about what to do with Wheatley-Provident."

Building a hospital

Wheatley-Provident's founder, Dr. J. Edward Perry, was a Texas native who graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1895, the same year the National Medical Association was founded. The NMA is the oldest professional association for the advancement of African American physicians in the United States.

After graduation, Perry started private practices in Mexico, Missouri, and Columbia, Missouri, before applying for a surgical residency at the University of Chicago in 1897. When he arrived for registration, he was met by the superintendent of the Post Graduate Medical School, he recalled in his unpublished memoir. "Dr. Perry, when we were corresponding with you, we did not know you were a colored man,” Perry wrote. “We cannot tell you that we will not take you because it would be a violation of the laws of the state, but I can tell you that we had rather not have you, and further, there is not much that we can do for you."

Perry studied at the University of Chicago for a year and left determined to improve opportunities for young African American physicians training after him.

"If we as a race ever possess a large number of professional men of a high degree of efficiency, they will have to be developed in Negro hospitals," Perry wrote. "I will go out of here and build a hospital and dedicate my life to the service of young men, so that they may not meet the embarrassments and handicaps as it has been my experience."

The same year Perry came to Kansas City, the Kansas and Missouri rivers reached historic levels, overran their banks, swept away bridges and railroad tracks, and turned city streets into canals. At least 20,000 people lost their homes, and the city's water supply was contaminated. The need for medical care during the flood outpaced the available facilities, especially for minority communities.

Dr. Thomas Unthank was an important ally in the quest to establish a state-of-the art hospital where African American men and women could practice medicine and nursing.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

A temporary hospital was established at Convention Hall, and Dr. Thomas C. Unthank, an African American physician who was practicing in Kansas City, Kansas, was asked to oversee emergency operations there.

"While serving in this capacity [Unthank] conceived the idea of a city hospital for the training of young Negro men and women in the arts and science of the profession of medicine and nursing," wrote Dr. Samuel U. Rodgers, the first African American OB/GYN in Kansas City, in a 1962 article for the Journal of the National Medical Association.

Perry's practice grew to include clinical training for nurses, and in 1910 the practice became The Perry Sanitarium and Nurse Training School. It was the first step towards realizing the goal he had set for himself in Chicago.

As Perry ran the private hospital from his home, he began to develop partnerships with black and white professionals on both sides of the state line. Unthank became an important ally in the quest to establish a state-of-the art hospital where African American men and women could practice medicine and nursing, and receive advanced clinical training in specialties like pediatrics and surgery.

‘Hospital campaign won’

The original structure with the parapet sign was built in 1902 and served a predominantly white neighborhood as a Catholic boy's school. The school closed in 1903, and sat vacant for the next decade while the block developed and the population changed around it.

Dr. Katherine Berry Richardson, who co-founded Children's Mercy Hospital with her sister, collaborated on the design of the "Mercy Ward" at Wheatley-Provident and was a chief fundraiser for the project.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

In 1926, a large addition, designed by the prominent Kansas City architectural firm Hoit, Price, and Barnes, was built on the property. Dr. Katherine Berry Richardson, who co-founded Children's Mercy Hospital with her sister, collaborated on the design of the "Mercy Ward" at Wheatley-Provident and was a chief fundraiser for the project.

On March 13, 1917, the Wheatley-Provident Hospital Association formally incorporated and entered into a contract for the building at 1826 Forest Avenue. The association’s board estimated they could renovate and equip the building for $25,000. With $3,000 in the bank, they launched a 20-day, community-wide campaign to raise the balance.

Gifts in increments from $1 to $1,000 were recorded in The Kansas City Sun, an African American weekly, under the headline "Honor Roll." Hundreds of names were listed in the $5 and $10 categories.

Twenty days later, on December 29, 1917, The Sun's front page announced, "Hospital Campaign Won" with $27,894 raised.

An ad that appeared in the Kansas City Sun newspaper in December 1917 launching the campaign to raise funds for the hospital.
Credit Missouri State Historical Society

The campaign set a precedent for community-wide support that would keep Wheatley-Provident Hospital open through economic depression, world war, and the social unrest of the 1960s. The hospital saw its 50,000th patient at the 1826 location in 1971 before moving to the new, larger, Martin Luther King Junior Hospital in 1972.

Its story is not forgotten by residents who have family ties to the building. Residents like Michael Adams, whose great-grandmother, Clara Adams, was active in the community and helped raise funds annually to support the hospital.

“The building in the state it's in today represents the state of how black America is treated in the United States,” Adams says. “History and monuments are not as well remembered or as well taken care of."

Without significant structural improvements, the building could soon be erased from the local landscape, taking with it an important symbol of a thriving black Kansas City.

Jennifer Tufts is an intern on KCUR’s health desk.