Charity Hospital, a public institution that provided free care to those who could not afford it, was founded in New Orleans in 1736. In 1936, the Public Works Administration replaced the deteriorated fifth facility with a new Charity Hospital on Tulane Avenue. The architecture firm of Weiss, Dreyfous & Seiferth designed the towering, twenty-story Art Deco structure, which opened in 1939.¹
Throughout the years, “Big Charity” changed hands several times before it became part of the Louisiana State University (LSU) system in 1997.² Until 2005, it was one of the oldest continuously operating public hospitals in the United States, serving the city’s poor and uninsured and providing a valuable teaching hospital for the nation’s medical students. Charity closed its doors after Hurricane Katrina, when the floods caused by the federal levee breach inundated the basement. Even after a concerted effort on behalf of the military, doctors, nurses, and citizens to pump the water out and clean the hospital, the state and LSU refused to reopen Charity, a controversial decision that continues to impact the city today.
In 2007, LSU and the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs formally announced plans to build new state-of-the art medical complexes that would replace their older downtown facilities and, according to city and state officials, jumpstart the city’s depressed healthcare system.³ Administrations claimed that Charity was deteriorated beyond repair. However, charged by unanimous vote of the Louisiana Legislature, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana (FHL) raised the funds to finance a $600,000 study to determine if the building could be reused. The study concluded that Charity was structurally sound and included a concept plan that demonstrated that the new state-of-the-art LSU hospital could be built inside the historic limestone shell, a plan that would save over $280 million (34% savings) in the construction costs of the hospital portion alone and could be completed in just three years.⁴ Yet LSU refused to include Charity’s rehabilitation in the project; instead, LSU and VA announced that their new complexes would be constructed across South Claiborne Avenue in the lower Mid-City neighborhood, part of the Mid-City National Register Historic District.⁵ In 2010, in spite of the efforts of FHL, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and numerous other preservation groups, twenty-seven city blocks of Mid-City’s historic residences and businesses were demolished to make way for the new hospitals.⁶
Charity, though still shuttered, has thus far escaped a similar fate thanks to the work of FHL, the National Trust, Smart Growth for Louisiana, and Louisiana Landmarks Society, among many others.⁷ As of 2014, the mayor’s office is investigating the possibility of adaptively reusing the hospital as a new City Hall.⁸
“Big Charity: The Death of America’s Oldest Hospital,” a feature-length documentary about the hospital’s past and future, was released in 2014.
1. Robert Leighninger, “Charity Hospital,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published January 5, 2011.
2. Bill Barrow, "Louisiana is closing maternity unit at New Orleans hospital," The Times-Picayune, June 29, 2010.
3. Kate Moran, "Plans for LSU-VA hospital complex stir resentment," The Times-Picayune, November 24, 2009.
4. RMJM Hillier, Medical Center of New Orleans—Charity Hospital: Feasibility Study Executive Summary (Foundation for Historical Louisiana, August 2008).
5. Moran, “Plans for LSU-VA hospital complex stir resentment.”
6. Wayne Curtis, “The Cost of Progress?” Preservation, May/June 2011.
7. Sandra Stokes and Walter Gallas, “New Orleans’ Charity Hospital: What Does the Future Hold?” National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Leadership Forum.
8. Richard Rainey, “Mayor Mitch Landrieu planning to move New Orleans City Hall, Civil Court to Charity Hospital," The Times-Picayune, July 3, 2013.
Suggestions for Additional Reading:
RMJM Hillier, Medical Center of New Orleans—Charity Hospital: Feasibility Study, Foundation for Historical Louisiana, September 2008.
Salvaggio, John. New Orleans’ Charity Hospital: A Story of Physicians, Politics, and Poverty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Weiss, Dreyfous & Seiferth Office Records. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane University.
For Further Research:
"Public Ceremony Marks Beginning of End for Old Charity Hospital" The Times-Picayune, 10-23-1936.