World War II drew to a close in 1945, but there remained a great need for hospitals to treat the enormous numbers of veterans that returned home from the conflict. The City of Spokane was chosen as the location for one of these facilities. The site of the Baxter General Hospital, in northwest Spokane, was chosen for the new hospital, which was completed in 1950. In the following years, thousands of veterans from a number of conflicts were treated at the Veterans Administration Memorial Center (VAMC) in Spokane. In time, the hospital expanded into the present campus of three dozen buildings.
Baxter General Hospital
The Spokane Veterans Administation Memorial Center is located on the southeast quarter of a 240-acre parcel of land that, between 1942 and 1945, was occupied by the large campus of the Baxter General Hospital. Completed in March, 1943, Baxter was equipped to provide hospital care for the many soldiers that would be injured in World War II. At its peak, it had a capacity of more than 2,000 beds. The sprawling complex contained about 200 buildings. It has been described as a miniature city, with housing for more than 800 doctors, nurses, military personnel, and civilian workers. This self-contained community provided for all the foreseeable needs of its inhabitants -- entertainment, food services, post office, chapel, library, communications, laundry, and athletic facilities. There was even a prisoner-of-war camp.
At the conclusion of the war, the need for such massive military medical centers was greatly reduced. Baxter was officially closed on December 12, 1945, amid calls for construction of a smaller facility to meet the medical needs of returning war veterans. Many of the buildings were offered as surplus and moved to various educational institutions or sold cheaply to private entities. Some of the buildings remained on site, being absorbed into the new Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Training Center, currently located directly north of the VAMC. In the end, these buildings, too, were removed, leaving none of the original Baxter General Hospital structures on site.
On December 6, 1945, it was announced that Spokane had been selected as one of the locations for 29 new veterans hospitals in the United States. A 200-bed facility was authorized by President Harry Truman (1884-1972). Spokane was one of only three locations allotted in the West, the others being at Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Salt Lake City, Utah. It was not expected that sufficient funds would be allocated for construction until late 1946 or early 1947. Nearly a year later, the site for the new hospital had still not been officially designated, although local rumor favored the former Baxter General Hospital location.
On May 8, 1948, a ground-breaking ceremony took place on the property of the former Baxter General Hospital. The first shovel of earth was turned by E. R. Sarles, a Veterans Administration deputy minister. In a drizzling spring rain, Mr. Sarles declared that the care provided to veterans by the hospital would be “second to none.” Braving the weather, the crowd of spectators and participants included local dignitaries, representatives of various civic groups, and members of the military. A scheduled parade and band concert was canceled due to inclement weather.
A list of construction contractors selected for the proposed nine-story building and auxiliary structures was printed in the paper. The McKee Construction Company, of Los Angeles, was selected as the general contractor. Most of the other contractors and sub-contractors, however, were local. Among them were Power City Electric (electrical), Warren, Little, and Lund (plumbing and heating), Central Pre-Mix (concrete), and the Washington Brick and Lime Company (masonry). As a federal military project, all design and construction was supervised by the Seattle District, Army Corps of Engineers.
Architects and Architecture
The primary architect selected to design the new VAMC was John Graham Jr. (1908-1991), of Seattle. He was the son of John Graham Sr. (1873-1955), who himself was an architect of considerable prestige. Graham Sr. designed many of the most significant buildings in Seattle and was instrumental in defining the appearance of the downtown district. Two of his most notable designs were the Exchange Building and the Frederick & Nelson’s Department Store (now Nordstrom's). By the time John Graham Jr. was chosen to design the VAMC he had already achieved national fame as part of the team that developed the concept of the modern shopping mall. The Northgate Mall, designed by Graham Jr. and built in the late 1940s, was the prototype of all malls to follow, appearing across the continent. His open-air design, concentrated shops, and spacious parking became the norm, until superseded by the modern fully-enclosed shopping malls of today. John Graham Jr.’s fame became truly international after the construction of his design for the Century 21 Exposition’s Space Needle, probably the most iconic structure of the entire Pacific Northwest, and recognizable around the world as the symbol of modern Seattle. Graham Jr. would go on to design many other commercial and civic structures, including the easily recognized Washington Plaza Hotel in downtown Seattle.
The associate architect selected for the VAMC project was George M. Rasque, a prominent local architect who was especially known for his design of educational institutions, including buildings at Eastern Washington University, and elementary schools in Spokane and elsewhere. It was Mr. Rasque who wrote an illuminating article in a trade magazine that aptly describes how the aesthetically pleasing appearance of the hospital building also provided practical advantages:
"Liberal use of rustications [the grooves that articulate the rectilinear panels that distinguish the concrete exterior walls], both horizontal and vertical, on the architectural concrete walls of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Spokane, Wash., has produced a paneled wall that is unusually free of visible form tie marks and is designed to reduce water staining. All exterior walls are architectural concrete. Walls of the main building were formed against plywood panels 4 x 6 ft. in size and V-shaped rustications between panels. The grooves are 1½ in. wide and ¾ in. deep.
"These rustications conceal all form tieholes plugged after the forms are stripped. They provide joints that will control cracking caused by shrinkage and temperature variations and they also provide for placement of construction joints between succeeding lifts. It is expected that the rustications will reduce staining from rain by distributing the water more uniformly over the surface of the walls" (Rasque, 1954).
The relatively unblemished appearance of the hospital walls today, nearly 50 years after their construction, are visual testimony to the success of their design, as described above. Rasque goes on to explain how the use of architectural concrete reduced the cost of both initial construction and longterm maintenance.
The use of load-bearing walls, with extensive steel reinforcement, allowed greater liberty in the design of the structure. Without the requirement of interior support columns, the limitations on floor layout were greatly reduced. A “central longitudinal shallow beam combined with supporting columns on each side of the corridor form the backbone of the floor framing system” (Rasque, 1954). The extensive use of steel reinforcement bar resulted in a building with a Zone 2 earthquake classification, a high rating according to standardized building codes. The concrete was placed within the forms by "elephant trunks," long flexible tubes, much the same technology as for similar buildings today. Builders were required to rub the walls with burlap immediately after removal of the forms, giving the walls their smooth finish. Application of these construction techniques resulted in a building that is not only aesthetically beautiful to look at, but efficiently functional and structurally durable.
Construction of the Spokane VAMC began in 1948, at a projected cost of $4 million. By October of that year work had progressed considerably. The exterior walls of the nine-story main hospital building were completed and the roof was on, allowing workers to turn on the heat produced by the three massive boilers that would send steam through underground lines to radiators throughout the building. The seven auxiliary structures would receive heat, as well, through underground tunnels. Among these were three one-story, wood-frame, brick-veneer buildings, two for resident physicians, the third for resident managers. Other buildings included a concrete attendants' quarters, a concrete nurses' quarters, a powerhouse, a laundry, and a maintenance building and ambulance garage.
A contemporary newspaper article called the hospital building “the largest Spokane skyscraper to be built since the depression” ("Heat on Monday..."). The article praises the “gleaming green tile veneer on the interior,” providing a wainscot for most floor corridors, contrasting with the otherwise plain concrete finish of the walls. At the time, the interior contained more than 500 rooms, 20 different types of doors, and 40 different kinds of surface finishes, including acoustical tile, cork, terrazzo, and the plain concrete. Most floors were covered with asphalt tiles. Open sun porches occupied the exteriors of the north and south wings. A large kitchen and bakery, with tile block walls, occupied much of the first floor, to provide meals to large dining rooms that were located on most of the patient ward floors, and to dining rooms for nurses, doctors, and other personnel.
The Grand Opening
Completion of the facility was scheduled for the summer of 1950, but delays apparently postponed the dedication until September 24 and the actual opening until November 1. More than 5,000 people attended the dedication ceremony, standing at silent attention as the flag was raised on the polished steel pole.
Carl R. Gray Jr., National Administrator of Veterans Affairs, gave the keynote address. More speeches ensued, as an American Legion band played, banners waved, and nurses and staff leaned out of the hospital windows. Afterwards, visitors waited for hours for the opportunity to tour the facility.
The First Patients
One month later, hospital manager Dr. Norbert C. Trauba announced that the facility was prepared to open its doors on November 1. He noted that at first only 50 beds, all located on the fifth floor ward, would be available, and that the operational space would be expanded gradually, until all 200 beds were occupied. The initial staff of five full-time doctors and 20 nurses was expected to soon reach a total of 15 full-time doctors and 45 nurses.
On the appointed day, the first patient was admitted at 8 a.m. He was Marcus Mossbrucker, a Spokane resident who had received a shrapnel wound in his leg five years earlier. Previous doctors had feared for the seriously injured leg, but were able to save it. Still bothered by the leg, however, Mr. Mossbrucker hoped that physicians at the new hospital could improve the usefulness of it. He was given the red carpet treatment, greeted by manager Dr. Trauba and other staff members. Several other patients were admitted later in the day, the beginning of an anticipated stream of veterans seeking medical aid.
Exactly one year later, manager Trauba reported that more than 1,400 veterans had been treated during the first year of service. They had served in four different conflicts and came from around the country, although the great majority hailed from the Pacific Northwest. The staff had risen to 250 and the average number of patients present per day was about 100. And, yet, two floors remained available for expansion. The VAMC was a proven success story.
Renovations and the Vietnam War
The first major renovations of the Spokane VAMC campus were begun in 1967. These were reported by Director Dr. Henry J. Nowak, the directorship position having replaced that of manager, which Dr. Trauba had held. Modernization efforts included new painting, the installation of new lighting fixtures, enlargement of the intensive care unit, and the addition of new canteen and recreation facilities. The 17-year-old hospital now had a staff of 237 persons, including 12 full-time doctors and 43 registered nurses. The average daily occupancy of the 204 available beds was 89 percent.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the VAMC staff began receiving victims of a new war, one that presented unique challenges. Many of the wounded suffered from amputations and other catastrophic injuries that they might not have survived in earlier conflicts. By the early 1970s, many of the patients exhibited alcohol and drug problems as well. There were also increasing feelings among patients of being rejected and disapproved of, as many Americans came to disagree with the government’s policy concerning the war in Vietnam.
Renovations and Changes in the 1970s
In 1972, VAMC Director Dr. Charles S. Modica was replaced by Dr. John R. Scotti, a graduate of Georgetown Medical School and a World War II veteran who had joined the Veterans Administration in 1965. Dr. Scotti immediately embarked on an ambitious renovation plan for the facility. The concrete panels of the hospital exterior had previously been painted pink, a thoroughly unpopular choice. Scotti had them painted blue (they have since reverted to their original light beige appearance). Other changes mostly involved the wholesale modernization of hospital technical equipment. After less than a year in the position, Dr. Scottie was replaced by Roland R. Hill in October 1973. Scottie had been promoted to the national VA office in Washington, D.C. Mr. Hill had the distinction of being the first non-physician to serve as Director for the Spokane VAMC. He was, however, a World War II veteran.
By 1975, the Spokane VAMC was approaching its 25th anniversary. Staff member Ann Pizzillo had worked there since the first year. She recalled how it was “out in the country then, not built up with homes like it is now.” The number of admitted patients had increased from 1,416 to 3,151. The budget had grown from $900,000 to $5.5 million. Director Roland Hill announced plans for a Memorial Day ceremony, complete with speakers, music, and the dedication of the newly installed Avenue of the Flags (since removed).
In early 1978, renovations to the hospital’s interior walls caused problems for then Director Frank G. Klunk. When new insulation was placed within the walls it subsequently expanded more than anticipated and caused cracks to form on the interior walls. This created an intolerable situation, resulting in the walls being ripped apart to remove the insulation, affecting nearly half of the walls. This work proved to be incredibly dirty, requiring workers to wear respirators and goggles. Treating patients under such conditions was impossible, so the patient load had to be reduced for about a month, forcing some to be transferred.
Expanding Facilities to Expand Services
The first major structural expansion of the Spokane VAMC campus was announced in 1980 by then Director E. J. Mack. This was the proposed construction of a 60-bed nursing-home facility to provide long-term care for patients. Funding restrictions delayed the project, however, and work was not begun until 1983.
Mr. Mack gave the Capiral Construction Company of Spokane the order to proceed on October 11, 1983. The building would be somewhat unique, in that one side of it would be earth-sheltered for increased energy efficiency and it was to be partially heated by solar panels. In this, it was an early rendition of a “green” building. Despite the creation of the new space, it was anticipated that need for such care would outstrip the capacity of the facility before its expected mid-1985 completion. The building was completed, as planned, in 1985. Several years later, in 1988, a new warehouse was constructed.
The next major expansion of the VAMC campus occurred in 1998, when the current out-patient clinic was completed. This was actually a one- to one-and-a-half-story addition onto the north end of the original hospital building.
Beginning in 2000, the Veterans Administration Memorial Center embarked on an ambitious expansion effort which resulted in five new buildings by 2005. One of these resembled the three original Ranch Style residences. The other four were one-story stucco-clad, stand-alone buildings whose walls mimicked the rectilinear panels of the main hospital building.