Tucked away on the Jackson Road (now Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) between downtown Vicksburg and the Vicksburg National Military Park stands a huge abandoned hulk that today emanates despair but was for over a century a place of hope for poor citizens of Mississippi in need of medical attention.
Kuhn State Hospital started life as Vicksburg’s City Hospital back in 1832, in response to a smallpox outbreak. It took its place at this location, then a suburban estate with “a substantial house” in 1847. Run by Dr. George K. Birchett, and later his son, grandson, and great-grandson, the hospital served wounded during the Civil War and suffered the deaths of 16 doctors and 6 Catholic Sisters of Mercy during the Yellow Fever of 1878.
The state took over the operation of the hospital in 1871, and the institution was re-named the State Charity Hospital at Vicksburg. Other state-run charity hospitals (an interesting fact given the recent health care debate) were at Jackson, Laurel, Meridian, Natchez, and Biloxi–surely there were some north of I-20?
Confederate veterans stalked the halls of a specially built annex, constructed in 1901 (burned in a “mysterious fire” in 1918). And to top it off, the University of Mississippi operated its first medical school here in the academic year 1910-11.
In 1954, a former resident of Vicksburg, Lee Kuhn, having long since moved to New York City, died and left his estate of $400,000 to the Vicksburg Charity Hospital. In his will, Kuhn directed that a 7-person committee composed of three Jews, two Catholics, and two Protestants be formed to decide the best way to disburse the money. The committee decided that a new building would be the best use, and in 1959, the institution opened a large new facility to the rear of the original buildings. The institution was also renamed in honor of Mr. Kuhn. Changes in medicine and mission brought about yet another large building in 1962, this one replacing the antebellum “substantial house” and its 1909 annex with the brick building that greets a visitor today. Probably both the 1959 and the 1962 buildings were designed by Raymond Birchett, Vicksburg architect and great-grandson of the original Dr. Birchett.
The Kuhn closed in 1989, a victim of state politics and of course funding issues. Here’s how the Vicksburg Evening Post described the closure in its June 25, 1989 article “Kuhn Provided Long, Proud History of Medical Care”:
Kuhn Memorial State Hospital’s role in the history of Vicksburg comes to an end this week.
On Friday, state funding runs out for Kuhn, causing the charity institution to shut its doors.
State funding also runs out for Matty Hersee Hospital in Meridian and South Mississippi State Hospital in Laurel, Mississippi’s other two general charity hospitals.
. . . .
Through much of the hospital’s history, two topics have surfaced again and again as topics of interest: money and babies.
According to a 1944 Vicksburg newspaper article, ’360 babies were born at the hospital last year, about 90 percent of them colored.’
From Jan. 1 to May 31, this year 72 babies started their lives at Kuhn. The hospital’s last baby was delivered this month.
State funding has been a perennial question for charity hospitals.
. . . .
‘Every two years or so there’s been talk about closing down Kuhn,’ nursing supervisor Ruth Christian said last week. ‘But nobody ever pushed the issue until (Gov. Ray Mabus) did this year.’
The Mississippi Legislature this year approved a $2.08 million budget for Kuhn Memorial. It also OK’d $2.13 million for Matty Hersee Hospital, $2.03 million for Laurel’s South Mississippi State Hospital and $99,642 for the State Eleemosynary Board.
Mabus, however, vetoed the support.
Kuhn has stood vacant for the two decades since this article, and as you can see in the pictures below, the results aren’t pretty. However, I was genuinely surprised to see how solid the two buildings are, apart from the missing windows, doors, and vandalized interiors. The bones of steel and concrete are solid. As for a use, I have no ideas, but maybe this post will inspire somebody to think of something and motivate them to get going.