Making Movies in Old Hospitals

Since the 1997 closure of the Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo city officials have enjoyed modest success in “repurposing” parts of the island as a movie shooting site. Just in the past week or so, a movie company working on a project tentatively named The Master used a portion of the Mare Island Naval Hospital, buildings H-80/81,

Mare Island Naval Hospital (1944) Official U S Navy Photograph NARA II, College Park MD (cropped)

for their work. They also used the ex-Presidential yacht, USS Potomac. Blogger Patricia Kutza, who writes about Vallejo, California, has written about the movie project in our backyard. Here is my quick summary of Mare Island Naval Hospital history that Patricia is using in her piece:

The hospital story begins with Commander David Farragut’s arrival in 1854 to take possession of the Island and establish a navy yard there. He brought with him a map of the island that specified a hospital site near the geographic center of the island.
No hospital was forthcoming, however, as ships–sloop of war Warren, then USS Independence–provided medical facilities for navy and civilian yard workers. By 1864, the need for a land based facility was great enough that local authorities converted an unused granary building to hospital use. This 30 bed facility served as an unofficial naval hospital from 1864 until 1871. Mariano Vallejo’s son Platon, the first Californio to graduate from a US medical school, was one of “eight surgical gentlemen present” to perform life-saving hip surgery there (for a sailor shot during “an anti-piratical action” off the Mexican coast).
The first purpose-built hospital, designed by Philadelphia architect John McArthur, opened in 1871. This “palatial” structure is recognized as the first US Naval Hospital on the west coast. It started with candles, kerosene lamps and large windows for light, rainwater collected from the roof into cisterns, bells and voice tubes for internal communication, and a conference room converted for surgical use on an as-needed basis to electric lighting, a continual and reliable water supply piped 25 miles from Green Valley, telephones and electric call bells and a purpose-built operating room–quite some technological revolution! It served until it was seriously damaged in the (6.5, estimated) Mare Island Earthquake of 1898.
Congress immediately appropriated funds for a new hospital. It opened in 1901, and is today the central structure (H-1) on the hospital grounds. This was of wood construction: the DC architect W M Poindexter was intent that it should withstand earthquake. The doctors, however, worried almost from the beginning about fire, and militated ceaselessly with the Bureau in Washington for construction of fireproof structures. The first of these, opened in 1928 were H-72 and H-73 (the Sick Officers’ Quarters) to the right of H-1 as you face it. H-80-81, lying to the left of H-1 as you face it followed in 1938-41. Hospital capacity stood at about 870 beds at the beginning of World War II, but had expanded, with the addition of annex facilities, to more than 2300 at its peak. Many famous people visited the hospital during the war. These include Eleanor Roosevelt and entertainers like Bob Hope. The Mare Island facility was named the west coast amputation center for wounded from the Pacific theater of war, and became famous for artificial limbs made of modern materials like plastics.
The closure of the hospital had been foreordained as early as 1939, when then-Surgeon General of the Navy Vice Admiral Ross McIntire ordered a search for a new hospital location. The site identified went on to become the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital. The Mare Island facility closed in 1957. Its buildings were later taken over by the Navy’s Schools Command and used for instructional and administrative spaces until Navy Yard closure in 1997. Touro University now owns the hospital structures: the last World War II construction, a recreational facility then named after the hospital’s WWII commander, Owens, is now called Lander Hall, and is an instructional space for the University. The nurses residence with lovely mission style touches, H-78 (1939), now serves as an administrative office building and a student lounge.
Here’s an example of how we, as local “content experts” (whether amateur or professional) can help get the accurate historical word out to our communities.
©2011 Thomas L Snyder
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