At the top of the Carson Towers on East Carson Street, there is an old inlaid sign that says "Saint Joseph's Hospital." I've never heard of St. Joseph's. When did it operate? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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At the top of the Carson Towers on East Carson Street, there is an old inlaid sign that says "Saint Joseph's Hospital." I've never heard of St. Joseph's. When did it operate?

Question submitted by: Bob Crytzer, Coraopolis

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I've heard this question a few times over the years, perhaps because St. Joseph's is the only non-profit health-care provider that hasn't threatened to take over the city. Maybe if they'd put their sign on top of the US Steel Tower instead -- the way UPMC wants to do -- they'd have gotten more attention.

But St. Joseph's seems to have maintained a low profile from the outset.

When it first opened in 1904, it did so with little fanfare. Other than an "informal reception," the Pittsburgh Gazette reported at the time, "[n]o formal exercises have been scheduled. In this characteristic, quiet way, the city's latest [hospital] for the care of the sick and the wounded will be dedicated."

Saint Joseph's was named after the religious order that operated it, the Sisters of St. Joseph. According to the Gazette, its first home was a Carson Street residence that had belonged to "the late Peter Haberman," for whom, apparently, the hospital arrived too late.

But the facility soon outgrew that space. As a 1922 city history put it, St. Joseph's was built "in the heart of the great mill district of the city." And not surprisingly, there was considerable demand for its services from foreign-born millworkers, many of whom received charity health care; concepts like HMOs -- and industrial safety -- were years in the future.

By 1911, the hospital had expanded to fill the building you see today: a five-story structure that cost $135,000 to build ... roughly the cost of a dental cleaning now that we do have HMOs.

When the new building opened on Feb. 2, 1911, an estimated 2,000 Pittsburghers came to see the latest in medical technology. "In the ceilings are placed the [light] bulbs," the Gazette-Times reported breathlessly on Feb. 3, 1911. "Another departure is the linen chute. ... Linen deposited in the chute will plunge to the laundry below." Doctors washed up in sinks that were operated with newfangled foot-pedals, the paper noted, which "relieves a nurse or physician of the necessity of touching anything with their hands."

But perhaps what stood out most about St. Jospeph's was how unlike a hospital it looked. Numerous press accounts noted its homey atmosphere -- some rooms "are so luxurious that they remind one of a parlor suite in a first-class hotel," the Gazette reported. A Pittsburgh Press account lauded the "beautiful sun parlor on the roof" and the "cozy little chapel."

Despite these innovations, St. Joseph's always operated in the shadow of larger facilities.

A 1931 municipal history, Pittsburgh of Today: Its Resources and People, lists St. Joseph's among 25 hospitals inside city limits. At 140 beds, it was one of the city's smallest general hopsitals: Nearby South Side Hospital had 225 beds, while Mercy had 670. (According to the book, however, St. Joseph's stood out in at least one respect: It was one of only two city hospitals to offer a free clinic for patients suffering with venereal disease. No doubt that service was especially appreciated on the South Side.)

And as homey as the hospital was, for decades there was talk about finding a new home.

Even as Pittsburgh of Today was noting the hospital's services, it mentioned plans to build a new facility in the South Hills. And by the late 1960s, St. Joseph's was openly looking. Suburban sprawl afflicts sick people too, and hospitals like St. Joseph's -- and Passavant, which by then had left the Hill District for the North Hills -- were following the population out beyond city limits.

In 1973, the hospital merged with Homestead Hospital to form the South Hills Health System. After Jefferson Hospital was built for the merged institution, St. Joseph's itself was emptied out in 1977. Patients and equipment alike were shuttled off to the suburbs ... although a threatened labor strike by local haulers made the process an especially anxious one. ("It would cause havoc to have an $86,000 chemical analysis sitting in the new kitchen," Sister Crescentia Mulvehill fretted in the Pittsburgh Press at the time. Though on the bright side, at least no one would mistake the decaf for the regular.)

Today, as you note, the building is a senior-living facility known as Carson Towers. Or at least it will be until UPMC buys it.

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