By Brianna Bartlett
The Great Fire of 1901 left the majority of Jacksonville in ruins and 8,677 people homeless. It also made it clear to the struggling city that healthcare for black residents was practically nonexistent.
During a time when the hospitals in Jacksonville were only for whites, black residents whose health had been affected by the fire had nowhere to turn despite the fact that they made up a large proportion of the city’s population.
“Jacksonville became one of the early major urban centers for the African-Americans after the Civil War,” Ennis Davis, a Jacksonville urban planner and historian, explained. “The African-American population exploded but there was a lack of healthcare options because of segregation.”
Now, in the wake of the Great Fire more than ever black residents needed a place of refuge for medical treatment. That was the trigger that convinced the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church to pull together its resources and buy a meat dealer’s home located at 915 W. Monroe St.
A beautiful Victorian home with intricate gingerbread porches, the former home was renovated into a 30-patient hospital with major funding from Mrs. George A. Brewster, a white woman who wanted to give generously even though she wasn’t from Jacksonville.
“The city of Jacksonville wasn’t going to do anything, so if you were African-American you were ready to stand up and do something for yourself,” Davis explained. “The Methodist Church was big in Jacksonville and decided to put something together for the community since the city wasn’t.”
The facility was named after its main benefactor and became Brewster Hospital and School of Nurse Training, a hospital that in conjunction with the all-black Boylan Industrial Home and School also trained black women who wanted to pursue careers in the medical field.
It was the first black hospital in Jacksonville and became a beacon of hope for local black residents.
“African-Americans weren’t able to take advantage of things that were available to white residents, such as medical care,” Davis emphasized. “It … had to be established for the black side of town.”
The hospital saw constant growth over the next few decades and was moved several times.
“They had outgrown the original building by 1910,” according to Joel McEachin, a retired senior historic preservation planner from the city of Jacksonville. “They began moving to other locations before settling at the Jefferson Street location.”
That final relocation occurred in 1931 when Brewster Hospital was moved to a new medical facility on the western edge of Springfield, now the site of UF Health Jacksonville Medical Center.
This new facility allowed for 130 patient beds, including 18 beds for an intensive care unit and 35 beds for newborns. The facility also provided the hospital with an outpatient suite that included three operating rooms.
In addition, the new facility included modern technology for the hospital staff to better care for patients such as a diagnostic X-ray room and a pathological laboratory where staff could run tests on patient samples.
“If you were African-American and you thought you were dying you went to Brewster, Davis said. “It was the only place you could go to.”
Although the hospital’s sole purpose had been to provide medical treatment to blacks, due to its reputation Brewster Hospital opened a physical therapy clinic where it began to also minister to whites. That clinic mostly treated children afflicted with diseases such as muscular dystrophy.
For over 60 years Brewster Hospital filled a desperate need for black residents. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the need for Brewster Hospital.
The Civil Rights Act ended segregation in public places and also made it illegal to discriminate in the workplace because of a person’s race, gender or religious beliefs.
After losing its substantial funding because of integration Brewster Hospital closed its doors in 1966.
In May of 1976 Brewster Hospital was added to the National Register of Historic Places as significant in local and state history.
The original building located on West Monroe Street was left abandoned for years slowly deteriorating until 2005 when the city of Jacksonville agreed to spend $2.3 million to relocate and restore it.
The original Brewster Hospital building was relocated to 843 W. Monroe St. near the northeast corner of West Monroe and North Davis streets. The deteriorated ornate porches were removed for the move but were later replicated on the building to preserve its original qualities.
After the big move Brewster Hospital still remained vacant, but in 2007 the city began renovations on the building to restore the building to its former condition.
The North Florida Land Trust became interested in the former Brewster Hospital building because of its rich history, according to the president of North Florida Land Trust, Jim McCarthy. “Part of our mission statement is the preservation of historic places.”
The organization is involved in negotiations to lease the building but a move-in date has not been released.
The North Florida Land Trust has plans to restore some of the first floor of the building to memorialize all the hospital accomplished. The building’s second floor will be used for the organization’s daily operations.
“We’re really excited about the opportunity to bring it back to life,” McCarthy said. “The building is rich with history.”