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City hospital was once a hotel

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

The first hospital in Fort Wayne had its beginnings in what was once an elegant hotel, the Rockhill House. That hospital, St. Joseph Medical Center, still stands on its original site at 700 Broadway, between Main and West Berry streets.

St. Joseph, although the smallest of the three community hospitals, is an imposing urban complex that little resembles the hotel that was its first home 125 years ago. More than 100,000 patients are treated at St. Joseph each year. The hospital has grown to be among the best-equipped in the region and has one of the finest burn units in the nation.

St. Joseph also continues, in its unique position in downtown Fort Wayne, to serve people from the lower-income, inner-city districts. This service is in keeping with the spirit of St. Joseph beginnings under the guidance of the Sisters of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.

Location factors changed

Its central location today, however, is something of an irony, since the hospital originated at that site precisely because the property was so far outside the town's center 125 years ago that the Rockhill House hotel failed. Thus, it became available for development of a hospital.

The need for a hospital in mid-19th-century Fort Wayne had become evident by the time of the Civil War, and was made dramatically clear when a smallpox epidemic ravaged the town in 1865. The community could do little for victims, especially the poor, except to quarantine them in the "pesthouse," located outside of town.

Bishop John Luers offered to buy the abandoned Rockhill House for a hospital if the county and the city would cooperate to make the necessary repairs and outfit the building for hospital purposes. However, the mayor and the county commissioners, debt-ridden in those Depression years, refused to participate in the plan.

Bishop spent own money

Not discouraged, Bishop Luers bought the 65-room hotel in 1868 with his own money, and he led a group of citizens in the formation of the St. Joseph's Benevolent Association, which set out to raise money to put the hospital in operation.

The bishop recruited the services of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ to work in the facility. Bishop Luers commissioned the Rev. Edward Koenig, the first pastor of St. Paul's parish in Fort Wayne, to negotiate with Katherine Kaspar, the Mother Superior of the relatively new German religious order devoted to the care of the sick.

In August 1868, a small group of sisters, led by Sister Rosa, settled in Hessen Cassel, just south of Fort Wayne. On May 4, 1869, the sisters assumed control of the old Rockhill House.

Early developer

The hotel was built by William Rockhill, one of the leading pioneer settlers of Fort Wayne. This building was to be the central feature of his plan to foster development of the young town's west side. In its first years the hotel was called "Rockhill's Folly," but later it was honored as one of the state's finest luxury hotels.

Rockhill, in anticipation of a major canal depot at his end of town, began building the three-story brick building in 1838. The canal depot failed to materialize for the west side, but Rockhill was again given hope in the 1850s when the first railroad came to Fort Wayne.

Plans were laid for a major line running west, again with a depot near Rockhill's hotel. But the railroad line and depot were never brought to Rockhill's west side, and the hotel had to operate a large omnibus from the downtown depots and canal packet landings.

Nevertheless, it was a splendid "rural" hotel and for a decade after 1854, the house attracted the best guests and was the scene of parties, dancers, social gatherings and political campaigns. William Rockhill died in 1865, and the Rockhill House, which never was a financial success, closed in 1867.

Ideal hospital venue

This was the ideal place for the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ to start their hospital. When the Sisters reopened the old hotel doors in 1869, they were still scrubbing the place when the first patient was admitted. A few months later, Dr. Isaac Rosenthal, a German immigrant, performed the first surgery at St. Joseph.

In the early years, St. Joseph was unique in offering special programs for the poor. In 1870, for example, the hospital initiated a program that enabled all poor residents of Allen County to be treated there rather than being placed in the "poorhouse," as was the custom. For this service, the city and township trustees paid the hospital $3 per week for each patient.

The first addition was built in 1879, but the smallpox epidemic of 1881-82 caused a crisis in available patient space. To give more room, the sisters moved their chapel and convent out of the old hotel and built new structures next to the hospital to serve their needs.

The great addition erected in 1912-13, facing Broadway, boasted the newest facilities, from steam heat and full electrical service to the newest incubators, X-ray equipment and "ultra-violet ray" treatment rooms.

In 1918, the nursing school, offering a three-year program, was opened, and a medical technicians' school opened in 1946. In 1929 the Berry Street wing was built, and in the mid-'60s the nine-story Broadway wing was built. It was during construction of the Berry Street wing that the last remnants of the 90-year-old Rockhill House were torn down. What had started as "Rockhill's Folly" is one of the city's greatest assets.

--Aug. 15, 1994