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Sunday, March 31, 2002

‘Poorhouse’ rich source of memories

Jerry Bowen

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Facility began as a haven for the destitute

In 1892, an article appearing in the Vallejo Weekly Chronicle gave a rather graphic account of the conditions of Solano’s first County Hospital. Built in the mid 1870s, it was then located near where Tabor Park is today in Fairfield. The property occupied by the “poorhouse,” as it was commonly called, consisted of 60 acres in that area with wind breaks of eucalyptus trees.

A man who stayed at the hospital for several weeks to gather information wrote the article. It provided a vivid account of the facility, describing it as the “Rickety Old County Hospital,” that was a combination poorhouse and hospital. The hospital itself was on the upper floor and the lower floor was described as a combination reading room and for religious services, but used almost exclusively by “crib players and smokers.”

One of the more revealing descriptions portrayed the facility as “revolting and horrible, as some of the duties required for the sick and helpless wore out a steward’s life by the malingering paupers and imbeciles.” He went on to say, “Those elements of society were probably to be found in every county hospital and with few exceptions they are ‘truly cumberers of the earth.’ ”

In addition, he went on to state “The hospital building is about as senseless in its design as were some of its inmates in conduct. Although 60 acres of land was available for a hospital building the individual or individuals who designed and had constructed this two-story affair must be ‘off’ somewhere. Had it been built as it should have been, on one floor, an immense amount of pain and torture would have been spared patients during that up stair-way trip.”

You might say the writer was not overly enthralled with the facility.

Eventually the old County Hospital made way for a new facility that continued to provide mental and medical health care for those who could not afford to pay for the services.

In the 1910s, consideration for a new facility was supported by population growth in Fairfield when the state road was routed along today’s Texas Street to support increased use of the automobile.

Fairfield was still quite small area-wise and a site for the new hospital was obtained about a mile outside of the city at the corner of what is today’s intersection of West Texas Street and Beck Avenue.

Charles E. Perry, a newly licensed architect, presented plans for the new hospital in 1919 that could be built at an estimated cost of $96,400. Construction of a portion of his design was begun almost immediately and the first phase was completed in 1920 with the E-shaped main hospital building. The superintendent’s house, isolation ward, garage, pump house and tuberculosis ward followed over the next few years. Hospital staff had quarters in the second floor portion of the central wing and kitchen facilities were located in the back.

A Child Welfare building, also designed by Perry, was constructed as an addition to the eastern end of the main building in 1926.

A heavy Italian Renaissance influence characterized the design of many of Perry’s buildings at the hospital as well as others in the county. Workmanship was considered to be of the finest quality, resulting in a long useful life for the hospital. The distinctive arched windows and Corinthian columns without overwhelming decoration gave the buildings a clean and pleasing look.

With the advent of the Army Air Base, later Travis Air Force Base, and WW-II, Fairfield’s population mushroomed. New demands on the facilities required more changes, additions and repairs. A large nurses’ dormitory was added in 1942 followed by a modernization of the heating system with a boiler blockhouse in 1944. Sometime in the early 40s, an addition on the western side of the facility was built that was used as a home for the aged. It was built by the Work Projects Administration (WPA) which also remodeled the interior of the hospital building.

A juvenile detention home was added in 1945, further increasing the multiple uses of the facility.

North and West Texas Streets were designated U.S. 40 from about 1928 to 1949. New construction of U.S. 40 in 1949 bypassed the center of Fairfield as the population continued to boom. Today U.S. 40 has become Interstate 80 with eight lanes of noisy traffic.

Fairfield grew to and around the old hospital as residential and business development continued to tighten the noose around the future of the hospital that had served the community so well for 70 years.

HMOs and federal health programs added to the bleak possibility that the fine old buildings would survive. Huge demands on Medicaid, local hospital politics and high fees caused cutbacks in public programs that served the patients using the county hospital. Laws were passed requiring hospitals to accept emergency cases, even if the patient couldn’t pay.

In 1973 the main building was converted to a primary care clinic, but that was closed by 1978. Various county agencies made limited use of the buildings, mostly for storage. As time passed, the venerable old buildings were allowed to fall into the disrepair that always seems to be allowed as a planned precursor to redevelopment.

Finally it happened. One day the buildings were there and the next, mighty machines were munching them up. The Solano County Hospital was no more.

Progress is good for a community if it is well thought out. But I can only wonder if the new buildings will be remembered with the same high regard 80 years from now as the old County Hospital is today. I guess the future will be the judge as to whether or not the removal of another piece of our past was worthwhile.

For those interested in a more detailed history of the Solano County Hospital, copies of a report made by the Solano County Division of Architectural Services are at the Solano Archives and Vacaville Museum. Well-documented history of the hospital was gathered for the report.