By Ida Brown / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
As the planned demolition of the Matty Hersee Hospital/School of Nursing building became publicly known this week, one group of individuals not only expressed shock and disappoint, but also some confusion.
"They announced at our reunion they were going to do something with the building ... They even had an architect there with a (architectural) drawing," said Pamela Stockman McPhearson, who was among the last class to graduate from the prestigious nursing school. In 2011, McPhearson, who now resides in Alabama, and fellow graduate Darlene Dearman Winham, who now resides in Tennessee, organized a 25-year-reunion of the closing of the historical nursing school.
"There's so much history there," Winham said. "The building's architect is unique. And there's the sentimental value – not only to those of us who went to school there but also those who worked there when it was a hospital."
Having been given the go-ahead by the Mississippi Board of Archives and History, Meridian Community College plans to demolish the building to provide for the future expansion of what MCC President Dr. Scott Elliott called “a landlocked campus.”
History of MHSN
Originally located at 2314 Poplar Springs Drive, Matty Hersee Hospital was organized in 1892 by a group of civic minded ladies led by Matty Hersee Wright.
A new building was constructed in 1923, after the hospital was commissioned as one of a group of state-owned charity hospitals. At that time, Matty Hersee was placed under the jurisdiction of the Board of Trustees of State Eleemosynary institutions and, upon its closing in 1986, it was one of three such hospitals.
The first record of students is a diploma issued to Ada Boone on June 8, 1913, as a graduate of the Matty Hersee Hospital Training School for Nurses. This original diploma, on loan from Boone's grandchildren, was displayed in the entrance hall of the Matty Hersee School of Nursing until its closing.
No records are available between 1913-1919. It is uncertain at what time the name change to Matty Hersee Hospital School of Nursing. Some transcripts and records are available from 1920-53. The school closed in 1953, however, Carolyn Evans McMinn was instrumental in reopening it and served as director from 1956 to 1957. The school was under the direction of Jamie McKinnon from 1957-1960, and Emily McDonald, from 1960-1965. During this time, the nursing program was 36 months.
Under the direction of Myrtle M. Estes, R.N., M.R..N., from 1965-1979, the school has complete records on all students entering and graduating. During Estes tenure, the nursing school was changed to a 33-month program and a modern, two-story dormitory – named after Estes – was constructed adjacent to the hospital. The dormitory began housing students in 1975. Estes retired in 1979 as director emeritus.
In 1977, Matty Hersee School of Nursing became a separate entity from the hospital when the school's administrative offices relocated from the second floor of the hospital, to the first floor of the dormitory.
From July 1979 until the school's closing in July 1986, Jerry Pittman R.N., M.S.N., served as director. Under Pittman's leadership, the school enlarged its physical plant to include a fully equipped skills laboratory, added classrooms, recreational areas, a library with a full-time librarian and purchased modern teaching equipment. In addition, the school upgraded its organizational structure and curriculum to meet standards for state and national accreditation. Each faculty member held a master's degree.
Matty Hersee School of Nursing continually provided an educationally sound program for the preparation of registered nurses to function in acute, intermediate and long-term care facilities. From 1959 to February 1986, the school had 475 graduates, with 454 of those passing the state board licensure examination for registered nurses – a 95.6 percent passing rate. In May 1986, 32 students graduated from the nursing school.
In 1984, the Matty Hersee School of Nursing received notification from the state of Mississippi that the school would be placed in a two-year phase-out status, with no state appropriated money after June 30, 1986. The school closed its doors on June 30 of that year.
Hindered new era
MCC acquired the Matty Hersee property, which consists of the hospital building and an adjacent 120-bed dormitory on approximately five acres of land, from the State Board of Mental Health in October 2006 at a cost of $1.6 million. Elliott said from the outset the college had planned to demolish the hospital building; however, soon after the acquisition of the property was finalized, the Archives Board designated the hospital a state historic landmark. In essence, that precluded MCC from developing the property.
“In acquiring Matty Hersee, the college was dealing with two issues,” Elliott explained. “First, MCC had been leasing the dormitory from the State Board of Mental Health. Had another entity purchased the property at the time it was put up for sale, MCC was looking at losing about one-fourth of its residential capacity, which would have been a real blow to the college in several respects, including the loss of room-and-board revenues and overall enrollment. Second, MCC virtually had no land on the campus proper for future development. Therefore, our Board determined that it was in the best interest of the college for both short- and long-term considerations to buy the property.”
Elliott said the college was never consulted about the property being declared a historic landmark and doubted that MCC would have acquired the property “had we an inkling that such a designation was under consideration.”
“We were caught totally by surprise and stymied in terms of any plans for future development of the property,” Elliott said. “The good news was we could still utilize the dormitory.”
In assessing the merits of the purchase, the 16-year MCC president noted that the MCC Board of Trustees was under the impression that the appraised value of the property would increase dramatically once the hospital was demolished.
“Both the administration and the college’s Board of Trustees share in our community’s pride over historic restoration projects that have occurred in our community, notably the Riley Center and City Hall,” Elliott said. “MCC is not against historic preservation. But the unvarnished truth is that we never envisioned that a small community college with very limited financial wherewithal would ever be able to muster the millions upon millions of dollars required to renovate Matty Hersee for some educational purpose. We researched grant opportunities for a period of time and failed to identify any substantial resources available to assist with the construction phase of such a project other than an asbestos abatement grant from the Archives Board. Ultimately, we turned that particular grant down because we felt it would be disingenuous to accept taxpayer money on a project that we had no real expectation of bringing to fruition.”
Elliott began writing the Archives Board several years ago, asking that it reconsider its position on Matty Hersee. Finally, on Oct. 25 of this year, the Archives Board granted MCC’s request to demolish the building.
“We have two goals for Matty Hersee,” Elliott said. “Once the demolition is completed, our first goal is to make certain that an appropriate historic marker or some kind of monument is established on the property to commemorate it being the site of the state’s first school of nursing and charity hospital. Second, our long-term goal would be to develop the property with a new building to house an educational program or programs. In all candor, that probably won’t occur during my tenure as president of MCC because, based on the history of state bond money support for community colleges, it will likely take years to accumulate the sufficient funds for a major capital improvements project.”
The demolition probably won’t happen any time soon. Elliott said that such a project requires an engineering plan to include the asbestos abatement. The actual demolition could take months and perhaps involve salvaging certain materials, such as old bricks and wood for sale to interested parties. Such a sale, he noted, could offset some of the cost of the demolition.
Although the project could take months, the college still has some sense of urgency about leveling the building.
“We consider it a safety issue,” Elliott explained. “It must be remembered that we have upwards of 120 students in residence in a dormitory immediately juxtaposition to the hospital. Meridian’s fire marshal (Jason Collier) has already deemed the hospital building a clear and inimical threat to our students in the dormitory. Personally, I see it as more than a fire threat. The college has experienced ongoing problems with undesirables breaking into the hospital, sawing all the copper pipes out of the building, yanking out copper wiring, and even setting fires. Windows are regularly broken out, and chunks of materials have fallen off the building, which could severely injure a passerby should the person be hit by falling debris. The entire front entrance to the building has fallen in. MCC is investing a lot of time and money in terms of trying to monitor the building with our campus police force and constantly board it up by our physical plant staff. To me, that’s a waste of taxpayer money.”
Elliott said MCC gained support from both the City of Meridian Historic Preservation Committee and the Mayor’s Office prior to appearing before the Archives Board on Oct. 25.
“My impression has been that the Mayor (Percy Bland) and the local historic preservation committee felt the same way as the college, meaning in a perfect world, MCC would love to have someone step up to the plate with $10-14 million and fund the restoration of the hospital, but that the safety of our students and the responsibility for prudence in spending taxpayer dollars takes precedence in this matter. Without trying to sound adversarial, the bottom line is that the State of Mississippi in the form of the Board of Mental Health had no interest in preserving Matty Hersee for generations, allowing the building to erode past the point of no return, according to their own evaluation. Why would anyone expect that a small community college with far less resources could do better? The State, in my view, should have never sold the property to MCC in the first place if it intended to simply shift that burden from one taxpayer-supported agency to another. Makes no sense.”
Elliott said that he hopes the citizenry will understand that MCC has acted in good faith on this matter and that it not mushroom into a polarizing issue.
“I think there are enough things, such as crime, that are on the front burner in our community right now,” he summed. “This doesn’t need to become an issue that causes divisiveness. Rather, I would hope that we can look forward to the day when the taxpayers have a piece of land available for the future expansion of the college that is accompanied by an appropriate historic marker to remind people of Matty Hersee’s significance to Meridian and our state. I want to publicly thank Hank Holmes, chairman of the Archives Board, for working with MCC on resolving this matter.”
Eventually, the college will likely also demolish the dormitory building next to Matty Hersee. A new, 150-bed dormitory on land donated by local businessman Bob Malone is in the planning stages now and will hopefully be opened within two years. The site is at the rear of College Park Shopping Center near MCC’s cosmetology and physical plant buildings.
“MCC’s long-range plan calls for all campus housing to be on the campus proper,” Elliott said. “That way, students will no longer have to cross Hwy. 19 afoot to get to classes. That’s never been an ideal situation. Whatever the college ultimately constructs on the Matty Hersee property would likely be a self-contained occupational program not requiring students to regularly cross the street.”