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171-year-old west Louisville hospital to be renovated

The U.S. Marine Hospital in the Portland neighborhood in Louisville.
The U.S. Marine Hospital hasn't been in operation in 171 years, but renovation and restoration projects are in conversation for the old facility's future.

The U.S. Marine Hospital was the last full hospital to operate in Louisville’s West End. Plans to renovate the facility to serve the community are underway, after it closed almost a century ago.

The three-story, concrete building sits along Interstate 64 in Portland. This old building may look abandoned, but the former U.S. Marine Hospital was once a lifeline for injured boatmen in the 19th century.

Family Health Centers CEO Bart Irwin said in November, the mayor’s office and the Louisville Metro Council approved $2 million to fund renovation projects at the hospital, now called Marine Hall, behind Family Health Center’s Portland location.

The hospital underwent several exterior and interior restorations in the early 2000s, according to the hospital’s website. Now with the exterior restorations complete, Irwin said the U.S. Marine Hospital Foundation — a group that plans the hospital’s restoration projects — met for the first time in two years to discuss plans to continue renovating the building’s interior.

Irwin said Family Health Centers, a care provider in Louisville, is in the process of taking ownership of the hospital in order to launch more renovation and restoration projects.

The board wants to make the old hospital a facility for additional healthcare and medical services and for Family Health Center’s administrative offices, Irwin said. This would also include repairing the central air conditioning system, electrical systems and plumbing.

“We would restore it to providing health care like it did years and years ago. This campus has always been tied to health care,” Irwin said.

The Marine Hospital is one of the last remaining antebellum hospitals in the country built specifically for wounded seamen.

In 1837, Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument, was assigned the task of designing seven hospitals across the country to aid injured mariners — an increasing need as traveling and trading along waterways became more commonplace.

The Portland Canal, along the Ohio River, served as one of those major waterways. The Marine Hospital opened in 1852 along the canal, the same year the town of Portland permanently became part of Louisville.

Sailors were asked to pay around 25 cents for health care services. In 2023, these medical services would have been worth about $10.

The hospital transitioned to treating soldiers in war times. It served wounded Union soldiers in the first two years of the Civil War, then World War I veterans in the 1920s. Marine Hall continued to treat sailors, the Coast Guard, lighthouse personnel and federal employees until it closed in 1933.

In 1997, the Marine Hospital was declared a National Historic Landmark for its service in public and maritime health.

“This whole campus just kind of has this history of health and wellness that we don't really think about or talk about very often,” said Melissa Mathers, chief of communication for Family Health Centers.

The front of the hospital is lined with an iron gate with the National Health Service Corps seal. In 1798, President John Adams introduced the law as an actct “for the relief of sick and disabled seamen.” This seal marks facilities bulit under the first federal health law.

“It really highlights the connection of this hospital with the foundation of our public health system in the U.S.,” Mathers said. “The National Health Service Corps is still in practice today. It helps place physicians and other medical professionals in underserved areas.”

Irwin said the West End has been a “health care desert” since Marine Hall shut down.

Over a century later, a full hospital is returning with the construction of Norton West Louisville Hospital.

Irwin hopes to bring more health care services back in the future with Marine Hospital.

“Renovating that building would enable us to expand that care to the West End folks [in] Portland, Shawnee [and] other parts of the West End,” he said.

Giselle is LPM's breaking news reporter. Email Giselle at grhoden@lpm.org.