November 24, 2013 Updated: November 25, 2013 at 9:09 pm
Sometimes, the walls can talk.
Thousands of notes to God, surgeons and dead family members, scribbled on scraps of paper and then slid into the cracks between century-old red bricks, tell the tales of tragedy brought by tuberculosis and other diseases as well as the wonders of childbirth at Colorado Springs' first major hospital.
If it's not the walls talking, then perhaps it's "Charlie" or one of several other ghosts said to wander the halls of St. Francis Health Center, originally St. Francis Hospital, at the corner of Prospect Street and Pikes Peak Avenue.
The hospital that opened as a one-story building in 1887 and expanded over the next 100 years is on the selling block; its future, like some of its past, remains a mystery.
St. Francis Hospital merged with Penrose Hospital in 1989, creating Penrose-St. Francis Health Services. To avoid confusion, St. Francis Hospital changed its name to St. Francis Health Center. The downtown hospital stopped treating trauma patients five years later. It did, however, house mentally ill patients until 2010.
Now, the only ones walking the operating rooms, tuberculosis treatment centers and psychiatric ward are eight security guards - or are they?
On the third floor of the 29 building, a wall clock encircled by peeling beige paint permanently reads 12:15. The 29 was the first of three modern buildings that formed St. Francis Hospital. It is named after the year it was constructed, as are the other two - the 65 and 73; all are connected.
Roger Bost has spent plenty of time in all three buildings, working the 4 p.m. to midnight security shift. He said the sounds of footsteps and doors opening and closing are the norm. Bost recalls one night when someone opened the south entrance door, paused a moment and then closed the door. That door always is locked, he said.
Bost speaks of small shadows, such as those cast by children, moving across hospital walls. The most distressing shadow was adult-size. Bost said the dark figure once stopped on the wall for several seconds, as if staring at him.
"It never feels dark or malevolent," he said, "just like someone is not ready to move on yet."
The four-story 29 building was a sanatorium used to house tuberculosis patients. Each of the private rooms has a sun porch where patients received the only known treatment of the time: rest, sunlight and fresh air.
Yellow tiles that line the second-floor hallway are streaked with thin, red lines. Some who have visited the floor in recent years said they could hear patients hacking, even though no one has been treated there for nearly half a century.
The building does not have central heat or air, despite housing administration offices from the 1960s to 2000. But it does have a tunnel; an underground passage from the three main buildings to the boiler room along Colorado Avenue, where the red-brick chimney that once belched coal smoke still stands. Inside, the stale smell of cement dust, a product of crumbling tunnel walls, chokes visitors and clouds the air.
There is another tunnel, too, and it was closed decades ago, said Clark Ulam, a security guard. This passage ran from the hospital underneath Pikes Peak Avenue to a small building at the corner of Institute Street in front of The Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind.
"I was told that at the time, the bodies of people who died from TB were not allowed to be taken into the open air," Ulam said. "So, they took them underground to the crematorium where the white chimney is."
Sisters came to city to help
St. Francis Health Center is a byproduct of the city's first hospital, located in an adobe building on West Colorado Avenue adjacent to the former railroad station. The Springs' first medical treatment center was a small infirmary built around 1887 to treat injured railroad workers hired to build a line to Leadville. In September of that year, four sisters from the Lafayette, Ind., chapter of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration came to the Springs to help care for the injured and dying, said Sister Nadine Heimann.
"There were so many accidents, especially through the Continental Divide," she said. "It took a heavy toll on the lives and limbs of a lot of people with falling rock and explosions and derailments because of unsettled road beds."
The infirmary admitted 20 patients the day the sisters arrived; 12 had typhoid fever. The sisters treated a total of 81 patients that first year.
In October 1887, the sisters bought the first bit of land off Pikes Peak Avenue that would become St. Francis Hospital. The cost was $350. About six months later, St. Francis Hospital opened its doors.
Great view from cafeteria
The hospital's second major expansion was the 65 building. On the second floor, a clock outside two surgery rooms remains at 4:20. The surgical areas were state of the art at the time, and steel drums used to sterilize tools still stand between rooms. Outpatient surgery and other procedures were performed on the second floor until 2005.
The fifth floor was home to long-term acute care and cafeteria services. The dining room's immense windows offer a grand look at Pikes Peak.
"People would come from the surrounding community because it was such a great view," said Liz Benavidz, nutrition supervisor.
Benavidz spent five years at St. Francis Hospital. The smaller facility allowed her to work directly with hospice and be more personable with patients. She said there was one patient who ate nothing but a bag of Lay's Wavy Original Potato Chips, two hot dogs with four mustard packets, and a Pepsi for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"So one day, one lady got a hot dog costume and we delivered his hot dog singing the Oscar Mayer hot dog song," Benavidz said. "He was one of the sweetest men you'd ever met."
The memories of those treated at the hospital thrive within the minds of some Springs residents.
Cyndy Wacker's father, Vern Goodman, died from pancreatic cancer in room 530 on Father's Day 2003. Wacker was the hospital's community outreach coordinator at the time, with an office on the first floor. Eight years later, while helping to organize the hospital's closing, she visited the fifth floor. Wacker spent about 10 minutes in room 530, staring out the window and letting the memories and emotions of her dad's life fill her soul.
"I remembered the really tough conversations we had in that room, like what would happen with mom when he died, and what death was like for him," she said. "He was not afraid, but yet he was scared."
Last expansion was in 1970s
St. Francis Hospital began its last expansion when contractors broke ground on a $3.4 million project in May 1973. The building was a forerunner to centralized nursing, where nurses' stations were placed in the center of an area with patients' rooms surrounding it.
The building included a third-floor wing designed to treat the mentally ill. The ward featured two security doors and a pair of large isolation rooms with half-moon-shaped, hard-plastic windows in the doors to separate violent patients. Hundreds of scratches etched in the windows are visible today. Mentally ill patients were treated on the floor until 2010, when they were forced out by a flood, said Ulam, who helped subdue several violent patients.
"The last big one was in 2010 where both a doctor and I had to take down and wrestle a patient," he said. "He (the patient) dislocated my four lower teeth."
Notes were found recently
The sisters have been preparing for the eventual razing of their hospital since 2008. The majority of all salvageable equipment, religious items and other memorabilia have been removed. The hospital held open houses to allow families to visit rooms where children and grandchildren were born and parents and grandparents died, said Larry Seidl, vice president for Mission Ministry. It was after the open houses when Seidl and others discovered the notes visitors had stuck into the cracks of walls, the corners of rooms and other crevasses.
"Dad I will always love you. Walking into this room reminds me how much I miss you. I will always love you dad," read one note, according to Seidl. Another note from a couple in their mid-40s who did not have a child until after several tries thanked God for the miracle, he said.
"It was like seeing the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem," Seidl said.
All of the notes were put back in their sacred places, Seidl said. They will become a part of the rubble and dust if the hospital is razed, leaving only the memories of births and deaths and the wonderment of whether "Charlie" and the hospital's other ghosts finally will find peace or seek another location to reside.
Contact Hunter: 636-0275