When North Florida Land Trust moved into its new office building at 843 W. Monroe Street in LaVilla, it marked the completion of an important decades-long preservation project.
The two-story wood frame structure, adorned with a brick veneer and intricate, jigsaw-cut balconies, was originally built down the street at 915 W. Monroe Street in 1885 as a private residence for a local meat salesman. But today it’s best remembered for its second tenant: Brewster Hospital, the city’s first hospital for Black residents.
The hospital’s roots go back to the late 1880s, when the Boylan-Haven School was formed. The school served as a private institute for Black girls and was affiliated with the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was there that superintendent Hattie Emerson formed a nursing program at the school, to be led by Belleview Hospital nursing school graduate Iowa Benson.
Not long after Emerson’s program took off, the Great Fire of 1901 struck Jacksonville. Since Black victims of the fire weren’t allowed at existing hospitals, the Missionary Society and Boylan-Haven joined forces to launch the community’s first Black hospital. The building at 915 W. Monroe was purchased by the Missionary Society with funds donated by Mrs. George A. Brewster – accounts of the exact amount donated range from $1,000 to $2,000.
The hospital was dubbed Brewster Hospital and Nurse Training School in honor of the contribution. Its staff quickly got to work confronting the realities of the aftermath of the fire, which left many residents injured or homeless.
In addition to serving Black residents for years, the hospital was instrumental in allowing Black women to pursue careers in nursing.
The nursing school departed for its own building in 1910. Around the same time, Brewster Hospital itself relocated to the East Jacksonville neighborhood, but continued operating at its original building in LaVilla as well.
Over the next few decades, Brewster Hospital gradually expanded – and relocated its headquarters once again, this time to the edges of Springfield – all the while continuing to serve as the primary source of health services for the city’s Black residents. Its growth was slowed only by the arrival of the civil rights movement, and the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act, which rendered the hospital somewhat obsolete.
Brewster Hospital shut down for good in 1966, with Methodist Hospital (now UF Health) taking over its most recent headquarters in Springfield.
Despite its relatively short time as the hospital’s main building, the LaVilla structure came to represent Brewster Hospital as a whole and all of the good it did for the community – largely as a result of its status as its original home and one of the only remaining buildings from the hospital’s lifespan.
The building was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1976, by which point it had been vacant for at least a decade. Over the years, it struggled with issues of vandalism and structural damage, but it did manage to survive the sweeping demolitions of historic LaVilla in the 1990s.
The city acquired the building and its property in early 2001, with plans for a privately-developed office complex to be built there. Rather than demolishing the historic structure, the city began planning to relocate and rehabilitate it; three possible sites were proposed, with 915 W. Monroe Street ultimately winning.
The building was moved in 2005, and work began in 2007 on the city’s $1.2 million rehabilitation project. But a tenant was not immediately identified, leaving the building to sit empty for over a decade.
In 2018, however, the historic building finally found a match as North Florida Land Trust signed a lease with the city and began work on creating an office space. The nonprofit, which works to preserve private and public land, spent just under $400,000 to further renovate the building before moving in last year.
In addition to NFLT’s offices, the building now features a room dedicated to the history of Brewster Hospital as well as meeting space for the Brewster Hospital Nurses Association.
Thanks to the city’s preservation of the property, the original Brewster Hospital building now lives on, both as a reminder of its service to the Black community as well as one of the city’s oldest surviving structures.