The Architecture of Healthcare: St. Francis Hospital


 ST. Francis

St. Francis Hospital on the shore of Allison Island, Miami Beach, Florida
Date: 1930–1945.  From Digital Commonwealth – Massachusetts Collections Online.

The next stop in our continuing series on South Florida hospitals is St. Francis Hospital in Miami Beach.

Originally named Allison Hospital, St. Francis Hospital in Miami Beach was the idea of American entrepreneur James Asbury Allison.  In the 1920s, Allison had spent a good amount of time in and out of hospitals and, for him, it had been a negative experience. He felt that the white sterile atmosphere of typical hospitals hindered a patient’s ability to heal.  Allison came up with the idea to create a world class hospital that would cater to the wealthy who were building their winter homes in Miami Beach. In 1924, he pitched his idea to another American entrepreneur, Carl Fisher.

By 1925, Miami and Miami Beach were profiting off of a real estate boom. Fisher was very excited about Allison’s idea as he knew that the concept of a world class hospital would be another draw to Miami Beach for the wealthy and elite. Fisher immediately donated eight-and-a-half acres for the hospital on the southern tip of a man-made island he called Allison Island, located in Indian Creek, off 63rd Street.

Allison hired renowned architect August Geiger to design the hospital. The three-story Spanish-style building was designed to look like a luxury hotel. Allison Hospital opened on January 1st in 1926 at a cost of  $3.6 million and soon developed a reputation as one of the finest hospitals in the world. James Allison even hired a French chef from the Waldorf Astoria in New York to prepare meals for patients.  Allison’s vision for his hospital was to include a world class health center, but Carl Fisher did not like Allison’s idea for this luxury clinic and was concerned that the health resort would not be profitable.

After the opening of Allison Hospital, a few devastating events in 1926 put an end to the building boom of the mid-1920s. On January 11,  a large sailing ship named the Prinz Valdemar overturned in Biscayne Bay and blocked the access of much-needed building supplies to the Port of Miami. This created a shortage of materials and drove up prices, subsequently leading to a slowing of the rapid growth period of Miami and Miami Beach. Then, the “Great Miami” hurricane in September, followed by another storm in October, destroyed what remained of the thriving economy in South Florida.

Allison quickly realized that his dream for his hospital was not going to be financially feasible. He unsuccessfully approached a sanitarium to take over the hospital, and then spoke with the Sisters of St. Francis in Allegany, New York about running the hospital. Even though the Sisters were experienced hospital operators, Allison decided to continue to run the luxury hospital himself.

The expenses of running a luxury clinic eventually became too costly for Allison, and he had no choice but to shut down Allison Hospital for the summer months, beginning on May 1, 1927.  Allison’s already-precarious health also began to further deteriorate, and by the fall of 1927, he was confined to a wheelchair and was on narcotics for pain. He then reluctantly signed a contract with the Sisters of St. Francis to run the hospital. The Sisters instituted several cost controls and budget cuts, which created continuing conflict with Allison. He had decided he was not going to renew the contract with the Sisters, but he passed away before the end of the contract period.

After the death of James Allison, the hospital was left in the care of the Sisters of St. Francis, which ended up purchasing the hospital for $250,000 on March 30, 1929. The Sisters continued to operate the deteriorating hospital until 1992 when this increasingly lucrative and valuable waterfront property was sold to a real estate developer for $12 million.

Years after the 1992 sale of the land and after the St. Francis Hospital was demolished, the property was purchased by the real estate company Dacra, which completed its Aqua townhouse/condo development on the site in 2003.

St. Francis stood as a symbol of a bygone era, surviving for six decades until its usefulness waned and it lost the battle against progress when its property became much too valuable during the new land boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

-Ursa Gil





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