This decision by Brigadier General Frank T. Hines, Administrator of Veterans Affairs, ended 15 years of concentrated effort by legislators, service organizations, and private citizens for the location of a hospital in this area for the treatment of veterans.
The site chosen was a roughly 110 acre tract of land located west of the city on old route 13. The land was originally purchased in Shawneetown by Samuel Aikman along with other Marion properties in October 1840. For decades, the front 40 acres bordering West Main in front of the VA were farmed and lived on by Isham Blankenship. Isham was the grandfather of Earl Blankenship who founded E. Blankenship Auto Parts in the 1920’s. The land passed back and forth over the decades between hands and landed back in the hands of Isham’s son Elijah Spencer in 1914 who still owned it when the VA purchased it in the late 1930’s. The Blankenship family didn’t stray far after the sale and moved over to a substantial block of land surrounding the Dairy Queen from N. 4th St to N. 5th St. At least three of their descendants are still living in this section of land as of this writing in Jan 2013.
The original plans called for 180 hospital beds for general surgery and medical patients, and a barracks type soldier’s home of 380 beds with a kitchen and dining room structure. An additional three barracks building were planned for future expansion, with a capacity of another 1,100 domiciliary beds. Neither the planned, nor the future barracks buildings were built, but the original intent can be seen on several of the original construction drawings. The original plans called for constructing eleven buildings, with another nine planned for future expansion. Actually built were the Hospital and Dining Hall buildings: the Nurses and Attendants Quarters and the Boiler House, Garage, Storehouse, and Laundry.
Ground breaking ceremonies were held on June 25, 1939. Completion of the project was promised for late 1940. In November of 1939, following a visit to this area, General Hines suggested to the contractors that the Egyptian motif be considered when planning the exterior decoration of the new hospital since the southernmost part of the state is referred to as “Little Egypt.”
Estimated costs for construction totaled $1,500,000 and bids were to be opened in January of 1940. Bids were not opened until June and all were rejected as too high. Inability to secure materials during war years was partly to blame for the 75% increase in building costs. Contracts were finally awarded in November. Ring Construction Company of Minneapolis, Mississippi, bid $1,247,000 for buildings and utilities. Separate contracts were let for the water tank, refrigeration equipment and electric elevators.
The dedication ceremony for the new hospital was held in conjunction with the 5th District Convention of the American Legion in Marion on July 19-20, 1941 – the “largest gathering of World War veterans in the history of Southern Illinois.” General Hines and Illinois Governor Dwight Green presided over the laying of the cornerstone, and leaders in the campaign to bring a VA hospital to Marlon had places of honor on the now-complete monumental front stairs. At the ceremony the Egyptian Past Commanders (of the American Legion) presented a bronze dedication plaque to be affixed to the cornerstone. As was thought fitting for this substantial public Institution in “Little Egypt”, it depicts a pyramid and sphinx against a backdrop of the coal mines, oil wells and orchards typical of southern Illinois.
The hospital grounds were divided into four sections, one for each of the Southern Illinois American Legion districts. Sixty veterans, working under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, carried out the work, planting the several hundred trees and shrubs donated by regional veterans groups that mark the grounds today.
The hospital complex was not completed until after the beginning of the Second World War. Dr. E. A. Welch was appointed Manager and on June 8, 1942, the hospital was ready to admit its first patient, Dr. John Andrew Aird, a local doctor from Carterville, who was admitted at 9:00 a.m.
Dr. Aird, a service connected veteran of World War I, was assigned to Ward 2B. He had served his nation as a First Lieutenant in the Medical Corps. Thus began the decades of continuous service to all veterans. Patients came not only from Illinois but also from northern Tennessee, western Indiana, northwestern Kentucky, and southeastern Missouri.
A $2.9 million modernization program began June 1, 1971 and it was completed in June 1973. The primary benefit resulting from this major remodeling and renovating project was central air conditioning throughout the main hospital building.
A one-story structure was built to house the new emergency generator and its accessory equipment which tripled the available voltage to the hospital.
New elevators, a central oxygen supply system, widely expanded inside and outside lighting systems, and a six-bed intensive care unit met long felt needs.
Additional improvements were the replacement of all asphalt tile flooring, and the relocation of all nurses’ stations to a more central point on the wards with a vastly more adequate call and signal system. These and other results of modernization brought the hospital into the 1970s.
In May 1972, under the Veterans Administration’s Regional Plan, the VA hospitals in Marion, Illinois, St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri, formally became a medical district. This meant that delivery of health services on an area basis, utilizing and sharing all resources available at the three hospitals to insure their maximum effective use.
A one-story Education Building (Building 37), built with the cooperation of the nearby Southern Illinois University Medical School, and was constructed in the late 1970 using a supplemental grant from the VA. A large nursing home located to the east of the main hospital building has now been completed.
A seismic strengthening project was initiated that involved major alterations to the original facade of the hospital building, although the intent was to reproduce the feeling of the historic facade in the new, stronger walls.
Since then, constant renovation has expanded the facility. There is now an offsite extension building located near the Heartland Regional Hospital off of W. Deyoung Street and a large physical therapy building has been constructed in 2011 and 2012 just to the northeast of the main building. The Marion VA currently provides services at clinics in Carbondale, Harrisburg, Mt. Vernon and Effingham, IL; Evansville and Vincennes, IN; and Paducah, Hanson, Owensboro and Mayfield, KY.
In 2011, Commander Drive approaching the hospital from the north was altered to accommodate a new intersection on West Main Street.
Since its opening during the Second World War, the Marion, Illinois VA hospital has served the medical needs of thousands of veterans from the region, an area that includes western Kentucky, southwestern Indiana, and southeastern Missouri, as well as “downstate” Illinois. There has been repeated renovation and remodeling of the buildings’ interiors during the decades the medical center has provided service to American veterans. During this time, as health care concepts and life safety codes for institutional occupancy have evolved the original multiple bed wards and large day rooms have been completely altered in accordance with more common, smaller unit, medical practice. In the course of these regular changes some of the Egyptian motif Interior decoration, which was never very extensive, has been lost. The original elevators, with their stenciled doors, have been replaced with larger units with easily-cleaned stainless steel panels. And some of the original lobby decorative features were eliminated when the reception office was enlarged and modernized.
Note: This building is referenced in Historical Architecture of Marion
(Data and most photos drawn from The Library of Congress Archives; an article written by an unknown author in 1989 Sesquicentennial History book; Federal census and land records; postcards from Mike Ward Collection; compiled and edited by Sam Lattuca on 01/06/2013)