Collectors buy chunks of an iconic New Orleans hospital

By JESSICA WILLIAMS, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When Tuandria Smith-Chambers first heard that chunks of the iconic Charity Hospital building were for sale, she didn’t hesitate.

The nurse practitioner remembers planning as a teen to go to nursing school in New Orleans and to eventually work at the hulking building on Tulane Avenue. But then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and with it, the closure of a hospital that had been a lifeline for thousands across the region.

Smith-Chambers ended up training under former Charity nurses at University Medical Center before working at West Jefferson Medical Center. But she rushed this month to buy pieces of tile from Charity to ensure she has, as she put it, “a piece of history.”

“I got one piece from Room 4, and two pieces from the chapel,” Smith-Chambers said.

Room 4 was the Charity emergency department’s trauma activation room, she explained. “I’d like to think that a lot of the lives that were saved in Room 4 had to do with what happened in that chapel.”

Smith-Chambers is one of generations of people with fond memories of a structure that over the next three years will be transformed into apartments, classrooms and retail space. The developers, a group known as 1532 Tulane Partners, have begun to sell pieces of the building, after a contractor began fielding questions last year from people interested in taking keepsakes from the storied, art deco-styled hospital.

Sinks, toilets, chunks of tile, marble and other materials have all been sold in recent months. A group on Facebook has become a clearinghouse for people wanting their own slice of the 20-story Charity.

The proceeds, for the most part, are going back into the $300 million redevelopment, said Joe Stebbins, CEO of 1532 Tulane.

“The whole thing with the marble sales was kind of a serendipitous thing,” he said. “People were walking by and asking about it, and it was kind of like, ‘Well, why not?’”

He hasn’t directly kept track of how much money the sales have brought in since they began around Thanksgiving, but said it’s “probably more than anybody would have thought.”

The project quickly gained a life of its own. A nurse who moonlights as a jewelry designer began fashioning chunks of marble into pendants. Renee Oncale said Friday she’s sold 30 pieces so far, many with fleur-de-lis symbols inlaid into the marble. She’s got 40 others ready to go.

People have flocked to take home parts of the building because they remember its significance in the city, she said. “When I was in nursing school, I had some clinicals at Charity,” Oncale said. “And what you learn there is just invaluable. Because they were the best of the best, and they train the best of the best.”

Leigh Saleh moved quickly to buy a pendant after she saw them advertised on social media. It was a way to remember the story her mother and father told her about the day she was born.

Her dad parked in Charity’s emergency zone on a Saints game day, and the vehicle was towed while her mom was in labor, she said, laughing. That’s why she picked the pendant with the fleur-de-lis decoration.

“That’s where I started my New Orleans story, was Charity Hospital,” said Saleh, who now lives in Pensacola.

By 2024, the hospital will include about 390 residential units, plus retail shops. Tulane University will serve as its anchor tenant, renting space for student housing and offices.

The developer is in talks with a high school that could use a portion of the space, along with an early childhood learning center, Stebbins said. Parking will be in the building’s basement.

The hospital’s Art Deco exterior will remain the same throughout the redevelopment, though the interior will be eventually be gutted.

City and LSU leaders hope the redevelopment will be a catalyst for a broader revitalization of the portion of the Central Business District that is near South Claiborne Avenue.

Michael Ganis, of CPM Construction Management, who is managing the sales, said a few hundred mementos have been sold so far. As the construction site gets busier in the coming months, people may have to arrange to pick up tiles or chunks of walls at a separate location, though the logistics of that haven’t been finalized.

Smith-Chambers considers herself lucky to get the pieces she did. She plans to put the tiles in a display frame on a shelf at home.

“I really do feel like although I never got a chance to set foot in Charity, so much of the nurse practitioner that I am today comes from the knowledge of the nurses at Charity,” she said. “Just to walk into the building and go into the threshold, was pretty overwhelming.”

For copyright information, check with the distributor of this item, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate.

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