About 10 feet above the sidewalk, on a brick and limestone building at Ashland and Maypole across the street from Union Park, is an engraving that says “Founded by Dr. Mary Thompson.”
That’s about all there is left in tribute to Dr. Mary Thompson, a pioneering surgeon who in 1865 opened Chicago’s first hospital dedicated to treating women and children — and followed that by launching both a medical school and nursing school for women.
“[The] chief purpose of life,” one male physician said at her 1895 memorial service, “was the establishment of the fact that women were competent to become useful ministers of the healing art.”
The five-story brick and limestone structure was built a few decades after Thompson died.
The building, which until last year was part of a women’s drug treatment center, is about to become apartments. A 1960s wing of the hospital, to the north along Ashland, has been demolished and the developer, the Marquette Companies, will build a 12-story building there that will attach to this five-story building. Together, they will contain 210 apartments, opening at the end of 2023. The building will remain a visible piece of the legacy of Thompson, Chicago’s first female doctor and the first woman known to have performed major surgery.
The site, across from Union Park and just down the block from the CTA Green Line’s handsome old Victorian station at Ashland, is the western edge of Marquette’s 1,043-apartment portfolio in the Fulton Market Area. Farther east, on Randolph and Ada, the company is mostly doing big new buildings.
Marquette most likely could have torn down the Georgian building that still has Thompson’s name on it — it’s not landmarked — but the firm’s head, Darren Sloniger, chose to keep it standing and gut-rehab the interior. He said the choice was more about preserving a nice-looking historical façade than about memorializing Thompson. At this project and his others in Fulton Market, Sloniger said, he wants to “keep the character of the neighborhood.”
Tearing the building down would be cheaper and less complex than rehab, Sloniger said, but “one of the beauties of that area is the historical vibe,” so he opted to keep it standing.
The building will remain a visible piece of the legacy of Thompson, Chicago’s first female doctor and the first woman known to have performed major surgery.
Thompson was born in upstate New York in 1829 and studied at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, followed by a year at a recent startup, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, founded by the sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, two of the first women in America to receive medical degrees.
Thompson arrived in Chicago in 1863 to treat the families of Civil War soldiers. In this city of 160,000 people, there were two hospitals then, and one wouldn’t treat women. On May 8, 1865, Thompson opened the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children in a house on Rush Street. The mission, she said, was “to afford a home for women and children among the respectable poor in need of medical and surgical treatment.”
At the hospital, Thompson was busy as a surgeon, medical educator and administrator of the various institutions.
Afer her death in 1895, one of the male physicians who eulogized her said she was “a woman’s rights woman,” but that she was “always too busy utilizing the opportunities for work than to spend time in preaching the gospel of the rights of her sex.”
Shortly after Thompson died, the board renamed the hospital after her, a name it retained when it moved from Adams and Paulina about half a mile north to the spot at Ashland and Maypole.
The hospital moved twice over the years, and at the time of the Chicago Fire in October 1871 was on State Street north of Division. The hospital was destroyed in the fire, and in 1873 the hospital opened a new building at Paulina and Adams, a couple blocks east of where the United Center is now. Half a century later, in 1925, the hospital moved into our subject building at Ashland and Paulina — where you can see carved at the top of each of its two wings the years 1865, for the founding, and 1925, for the move to this location.
The hospital closed in 1988, after 123 years. It was one of eight Chicago hospitals that closed in the span of three years, and an administrator told the Chicago Tribune there was no way to survive taking care of poor and elderly patients because of low funding for Medicare and Medicaid from both the state and federal governments.
Two years later, the state purchased the hospital property and re-opened it as the Women’s Treatment Center, a 125-bed facility where women could recover from drug addiction, and their children could live with them. It also provided outpatient treatment for people fighting opioid addiction.
In May 2021, the Women’s Treatment Center announced that the pandemic had tanked its already precarious finances and it would shut down. In August 2021, Marquette bought the site, though public records do not show what the company paid.
Sloniger said the bronze lettering that honors Mary Thompson will be restored. The rental complex that includes the old hospital and the new 12-story tower hasn’t been named yet. Honoring Mary Thompson in the name, Sloniger said, “is up for consideration.”
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.
Vashon Jordan Jr. is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @vashon_photo.