The old St. Luke’s Hospital building, constructed in 1878, stands in stark contrast to the modern VyStar Veterans Arena whose rear parking lot sits on the opposite side of Palmetto Street from the old hospital. Were it not for the efforts of a preservation group, as well as the Jacksonville Historical Society, it might not still stand at all.
The three-story structure at 314 N. Palmetto Street was originally constructed as the new home of St. Luke’s Hospital, which had been formed five years earlier by three local women – Susan Hartridge, Anna Doggett, and Myra H. Mitchell. Most historic accounts refer to the three women only by their husbands’ names.
The three women first established the hospital within a one-story, two-room building, trying to keep up with the demand for local health initiatives spurred by Jacksonville’s post-Civil War tourism boom as well as periodic outbreaks of yellow fever. The small structure quickly proved inadequate, prompting them to raise funds for a new, larger building.
The first attempt at a new building unfortunately burned down prior to opening. The second attempt, designed by architect George Hoover, opened in late 1878 at the corner of Palmetto and Duval streets, again built with the help of local donors.
St. Luke’s Hospital continued growing rapidly, with a major yellow fever epidemic in the late 1880s prompting the addition of two new wings to the original building. The building survived the Great Fire of 1901 despite many nearby buildings having been destroyed.
By 1914, the building on Palmetto Street became insufficient to accommodate all of the hospital’s patients. St. Luke’s relocated to a larger building in the Springfield area; the hospital would later relocate to the Southside in 1984 and was later acquired by Ascension St. Vincent’s.
After St. Luke’s moved on from the building, it served as additional space for the Florida Casket Company and, later, as a warehouse building.
Though the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, its two additional wings were demolished just three years later – and the original, central structure was also in danger of demolition. Luckily, a nonprofit preservation group, Old St. Luke’s Restoration, was able to purchase the building and save it from the wrecking ball.
The building would later be used as office space for Rep. Charles E Bennett, a congressman from Jacksonville who has a bronze statue dedicated in his honor at James Weldon Johnson Park. Following Bennett’s tenure within the building, it was purchased – and utilized – by the Arthritis Foundation of Florida.
In 2009, the Jacksonville Historical Society initiated a $5 million project to purchase both the old St. Luke’s Hospital building and the adjacent Florida Casket Company building to convert into offices and storage space for its extensive archives. The purchase of the old hospital building was finalized in 2012, at which point JHS moved into the building – which would become its new headquarters, replacing the old St. Andrew’s Church.
JHS continues to operate out of the old St. Luke’s Hospital building and even plans to convert the adjacent Florida Casket Company building into a local music museum in the near future. Thanks to the organization’s work, Jax’s oldest private hospital building will live on for years to come.