RUSK – Barbara Jordan lives with her husband in a historic area of Palestine known for stately homes, neatly landscaped lawns and gorgeous spring flowers.
The couple purchased their 1890s-era Victorian retirement dream home years ago after falling hard for the handcrafted detailing, original wood floors and vintage stained glass windows.
“We struggled to get our home and it’s been a labor of love to fix it up,” Mrs. Jordan said, waving from a front porch frequented by friends and family. “This is our life’s savings. We love it … but things have really changed.”
A key concern for the homeowners is a nightmare property across the street – an abandoned hospital – that’s become a magnet for vandals, drug users, prostitutes and ghost hunters in search of a few goose bumps.
At the time the couple acquired their home, it seemed the city’s old Memorial Hospital would soon be up and running, but that wasn’t the case.
“It wasn’t that bad 16 years ago, you could tolerate it, but things are different now,” she said. “A few months back, a boy turned up missing and there must have been 30 people over there looking. He was found somewhere else, but that place concerns me … I’m afraid something really bad could happen in there one day. It just needs to go away.”
One only has to stroll past Palestine’s old Memorial Hospital, 900 S. Sycamore St., to understand her fears.
There are broken windows, spray-painted graffiti, unsecured doors and high weeds … and those are the most obvious issues.
During a recent visit, an unknown liquid substance was observed leaching through the basement walls onto the sidewalk.
There are reports and photos of an open elevator shaft and standing water in the basement, which houses rusting electrical and mechanical systems.
Images of its interior snapped last year by professional urban photographer Christopher J. Winfield reveal an interior littered with used syringes and antiquated medical equipment – operating tables, testing devices, monitors and wheelchairs.
Hazards captured in those images are confirmed through numerous videos posted to YouTube by ghost hunters, and personal observations by Palestine’s own building inspector.
“It’s a mess,” said inspector Mark Miers during a chance meeting at the property. “The roof is very compromised. It leaks, so there’s water and humidity. The ceiling tiles are falling out of the ceiling. There’s mold and mildew and graffiti.”
Copper thieves moved through a few years ago, stripping away wiring and connections and plumbing, he said.
And then there’s the asbestos and the mercury in old blood pressure devices.
The inspector declined to allow a tour of the inside, saying it’s not safe to enter without proper safety attire because of the presence of asbestos and other environmental risks.
“There’s a lot of hazardous things in there,” Miers said. “It’s a nuisance and no, we (city officials) don’t want it here. It’s got to go.”
FROM ASSET TO TROUBLE
Palestine’s old Memorial Hospital wasn’t always in this condition.
The hospital was once an asset for the entire community, a go-to for everything from broken bones to birthing babies.
“When the hospital was in operation, it was wonderful,” said retired accountant Jack Coleman, who grew up in the area and later served on the city council. “My brother was born here in ’53; both of my children were born here. It was a happy place, a fun place - we were glad to have it.”
But the hospital eventually closed and changed hands several times before it was acquired by an out-of-state nonprofit, which also folded.
Consequently, the tax delinquent property became tangled in financial red tape and sat vacant for more than two decades, transforming into a rotting time capsule of community medicine.
In recent years, it’s become a magnet for ghost chasers and thrill-seekers.
Within the past three years, Palestine police have responded to more than 80 calls for service at the location for everything from criminal trespass and loud music to a reported fire, records show.
Securing the property is apparently difficult.
The city installed a fence around the perimeter to thwart trespassers, but people crawled under it and rammed vehicles through it, residents said.
New graffiti gets painted over, but trespassers always return and scribble over it.
Plywood is routinely installed over open windows and doors, but it’s always removed within hours.
Coleman’s fond memories of the hospital’s happier days don’t overshadow his desire to see it gone.
He takes countless photos of the vandalism and deterioration – the leaking roof, crumbling cement stairs and mystery fluid on the sidewalk.
He complains at city meetings, writes letters to local leaders, delivers commentary on a local radio station, files requests for information and pesters local leaders to act.
Like Mrs. Jordan, he worries someone is going to be hurt, citing as an example of the presence of outdated transformers on the property, which once contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), a substance banned in the 1970s by the Environmental Protection Agency for its toxicity.
“I’m not trying to kick the city around,” Coleman said. “I just want the old hospital down. It’s been vacant for about 25 years and it needs to go. It’s a disaster - you can’t call it anything else.”
CHANGE ON THE HORIZON?
There are signs that change could be coming.
The property was put up for sale in a September tax auction, but there were no bidders, leaving the property in the care, control and custody of the local taxing entities – city, county and school district.
Money appears to be the key issue in moving forward with any kind of plan.
Fixing it would be more costly than tearing it down, the city’s building inspector said recently, explaining it needs a total overhaul and new everything - plumbing, electrical and interior finish out.
Palestine communications officer Nate Smith confirmed efforts are underway to tear it down.
“This has been an ongoing problem since about ’94,” he said. “When the occupants of the hospital moved to the loop, it moved from the county to us … no one seems to have the funds to (demo) it.”
Estimates to raze the structure are projected at $400,000, but the figure could actually be much higher, officials said.
It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact figure because of other factors associated with the project, such as clearing out the asbestos, an insulating building material that’s been linked to certain cancers, officials said.
With the property now under local control, Palestine’s Building and Standards board recently determined the building must come down, Smith said.
The focus now is on finding the cash to make it happen.
“We’re working toward the process of bringing it down,” Smith said, citing an unused 1989 block grant as a potential revenue source.
“It’s a revolving loan fund,” he said. “We’re working with the Texas Department of Agriculture to turn those funds over to reducing urban blight.”
A special hearing is planned for the Oct. 23 City Council meeting to consider and approve applying for those funds.
“Right now the EDC (Economic Development Corporation) is soliciting bids,” Smith said. “There also has to be asbestos abatement. We have to remove the asbestos according to TCEQ requirements.”
That’s going to run at least $125,000, Smith said, noting the EDC is chipping in to help see the project to fruition.
“Everything is falling into place; we just have to make sure we do it right,” Smith said. “We’d like to get it done in 2017. The council voted in September to get the ball rolling … it’s gotta go.”
RATS ON THE RUN
To comply with legal requirements associated with remediating the problem, the public must be allowed to weigh in.
More than 60 people showed up to an August town hall meeting to express support for bringing in the wrecking balls, according to video obtained from the public meeting.
Some of their comments reveal a neighborhood eager for change.
Longtime resident Alex Nemer commended the city’s efforts to tidy up the exterior of the property, but he said there’s a downside to the labor too.
“During the cooler months, what happens is, the rodents and rats and snakes come across the street,” Nemer said. “When you mess with our friend, the hospital, they come over to my house … They come over and get on your roof and then they come down the vent that goes to the Vent-A-Hood over your stove and you hear them running around in there.”
Turning on the motor can lead to an unsanitary kitchen disaster, he said.
“Guess what happens?” Nemer asked with a grin, amid squeals and giggles from the grimacing audience. “You grind one up. And then you’ve got a wonderful, wonderful odor for a couple of weeks … then the fur and the head and the guts and everything else come down into the blades and onto your stovetop.”
Of his opinion on the hospital, he said, “Get rid of the thing … and then what’s going to happen is, that whole area is going to blossom again, like it did at one time.”
Speaker Julie Abston, who chairs Palestine’s Historic Landmark Commission, said property values throughout the neighborhood are certain to go up if the hospital goes.
She expressed confidence in the city’s ability to finally make things happen.
“Properties around there don’t sell for as much as they should because of that kind of eyesore,” she said. “If everybody gets together, everybody shares their ideas and people are motivated … then yes, it can be done.”