Visalia’s Challenging Path to Better Health Care
In the early years, small western towns like Visalia struggled with delivering quality health care. Doctors were scarce and the few that did exist were oftentimes poorly trained, and lacked the tools and medicine needed to mend an ailing people. There were also few hospitals, and the ones that did exist were often ill-equipped, poorly run, and lacked necessary sanitation.
The Tulare County Hospital, for example, located in a room above the Methodist Church near Acequia and Church streets in Visalia was one such hospital. In 1864 a reporter for the Visalia Weekly Delta visited this county care facility for the poor and reported his grim findings in the paper. He wrote that the floor was dirty and the broken windows were “nicely fringed” with spider webs.
In most cases, physicians provided care at the patient’s home or in the doctor’s office, but sometimes paying customers with serious medical ailments could get a room at a private hospital. In Visalia, one such hospital was called the Fenwick Sanitarium located on E. Mineral King Avenue. Nurse Dorothy “Dollie” V. Fenwick had opened the facility in about 1910. She offered a quiet retreat with “advanced and scientific treatment,” and unlike the county hospital, she allowed resident patients to have their own doctors treat them there. At the same time, doctors C. M. White of Visalia and Blodgett of Tulare operated another hospital known as Visalia General Hospital at 702 N. Court. This facility seemed to be the hospital of choice for treatment of burns, broken bones, and diseases. But it also appears that the hospital served as the private domain of the two doctors.
In September 1920, a group of eight physicians–I. M. Lipson, Gilbert Furness, I. H. Betts, C. M. White (of Visalia General Hospital), A. W. Preston, Thomas McSwain, and doctors Maupin, Sr. and Trowbridge of Fresno–formed the Kaweah Hospital. The doctors purchased the Joseph Garcia home at 415 W. School Street, remodeled and expanded it to accommodate 24 patients. It opened its doors in December 1920.
By 1935, Visalia’s population had grown to about 8,000 and the community was questioning the suitability of the Kaweah Hospital to keep up with the needs of the growing town. The group of doctors was unable or unwilling to build a larger facility, so the Visalia City Council began exploring other options. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” program was in place, which encouraged public works projects so people could be put to work constructing public buildings. Visalia applied for hospital funding through the federal Public Works Administration (PWA).
One of the requirements for receiving federal money was that local governments provide matching funds. So when the PWA approved the funds, the council explored ways to pay the city’s share. An election for a special tax was held, but it failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority needed. Other options were considered and through available financial maneuvers, the city was able to find its share.
The city bought a parcel of land on Mineral King Avenue near Floral Street and hospital plans were prepared by Ernest Kump, a well-known Fresno architect. The R. W. Brown Construction Co. of Madera was awarded the construction contract.
In early 1936, ground was broken for the Visalia Municipal Hospital with the construction scheduled to take 180 working days to complete. The plan called for a single story building laid out with wings that would accommodate a total of 32 beds. Included in the plan was a rotunda in the center, two operating rooms, a delivery room, a 7-bed nursery, and a kitchen in the basement.
With an address of 310 S. Floral, it opened in October with a price tag of about $87,000. Visalia now had one of only three city-owned hospitals in the state.
For the next 33 years the hospital served the community. Modifications and additions were made over the years, and by 1956, the enlarged hospital was valued at more than $300,000. Obviously proud, the city boasted that “patient fees have paid for operating expenses and allowed a profit each year.”
In the late 1950s, the Kaweah Delta Hospital Foundation was established. By 1961 a newly formed Kaweah Delta Hospital District was in place and it took over the hospital operation. Ernest G. Casassa, the man who had been the Visalia Municipal Hospital administrator, continued to lead under the new arrangement.
The 1960s also brought a push for a new hospital, however there were different opinions on how to proceed. Some wanted to just keep enlarging the existing building and others wanted a private company to build it rather than the district. There were some who wanted a new hospital built out of town, and yet others wanted a joint city/county hospital. After much discussion, the decision was made to build a new hospital on the site of the old one. After several failed attempts to get voter approval, in December 1965, the electorate gave the district the go ahead for construction.
Building began with a plan created by Visalia architect James P. Lockett. His novel design attracted considerable attention. According to a Visalia Times-Delta article, the design “was based on a repetition of equilateral triangles around a central column…with construction composed of thin shell sandwich type floor slabs.” Not only was his design economical, it allowed for relatively easy future expansion. According to the Delta reporter, Miles Shuper, the design would likely become a “prototype for future hospitals.”
In June 1969, the $6.5 million dollar hospital was finished and ready for occupancy. The large structure towered over the adjacent old Visalia Municipal Hospital, which continued to operate during construction. In June the physical move began from the old 68-bed hospital to the new four-story facility—one designed for 237 beds. In July the old hospital was demolished.
Kaweah Delta Hospital has served the community for 47 years, and like the old one before it, the building has undergone many changes, expansions, and upgrades. And it is safe to say, more changes are on the way.