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Artwork from former City Hospital is spared as demolition looms

March 27, 2012

Tuesday, March 27, 2012
By Courtney Gustafson
Special to the T&G
(c) Worcester Telegram and Gazette

Photo: T&G Staff/Tom Rettig

Worcester, MA -- Retired physician and former city Health Commissioner Dr. Leonard Morse sometimes used to daydream during conferences at the former Worcester City Hospital. And when he did, he would look at the relief sculptures on the walls of the hospital's amphitheater. 

“They were beautiful, inspiring images,” Dr. Morse said. 

But the images — one of Dr. William Harvey, who first described the circulatory system in the 17th century, and another of a double serpent medical caduceus on top of an open textbook — were slated to be demolished with the rest of the former hospital's Jacques Building within the next month. The caduceus has been the symbol of the American medical profession for a century.

A third image, of tuberculosis researcher Dr. Robert Koch, has already been destroyed.

“I started to wonder what would happen to those images I used to love looking at,” said Dr. Morse. “And then I realized that we had to save them.”

Dr. Morse mentioned his desire to save the images to Noreen Johnson Smith, vice president of development for Family Health Center.

The pair, who serve as board members for the Waltham Public Health Museum, and who share an interest in local history, immediately began looking for funding to preserve the artwork. Just one day later, the private Hoche-Scofield Foundation, based in Providence, granted funding for the project.

“This was an emergency campaign,” Ms. Johnson Smith said. “The whole building could have crumbled at any moment.”

Joshua Craine of Daedalus Inc., an art conservation company, began work to preserve the pieces immediately.

“We had to mobilize rather quickly for this one,” Mr. Craine said. “We knew the building was about to come down.”

Mr. Craine, who has also worked on the monument of Moses in the new Worcester County Courthouse, and on the Rogers Kennedy Memorial in Elm Park, said he was working inside what felt like the middle of a demolition site.

“There were bricks falling around me as I was trying to save these pieces,” said Mr. Craine. “I'm glad we got here so quickly. I don't know how much longer these guys would have held out.”

Mr. Craine explained that trying to extract the original sculptures from the walls would likely destroy them. Instead, he will create a silicon mold of the reliefs, which will then be used to create plaster casts. With the casts, multiple replicas of the original pieces can be created.

Dr. Morse hopes to have reproductions of the sculptures displayed in Worcester's Family Health Center, which rests on the site of the former Worcester City Hospital. 

“The Family Health Center is really the successor to Worcester City Hospital, and these pieces will be a connection to the past for the patients and staff who walk these halls,” Dr. Morse said. “Everyone who passes through this building will know that these grounds once held Worcester's first hospital.”

Ms. Johnson Smith said that the demolition company, Patriots Environmental Corporation, has delayed further demolition so that the artwork can be preserved. The company has also donated marble from the demolition site to be turned into a fountain for the Family Health Center, and bricks from the former hospital walls to be cleaned by local masonry students, fitted with commemorative plaques, and sold to city residents.

“Saving fragments of Worcester City Hospital is so important,” said Ms. Johnson Smith. “The legacy of the hospital belongs to every family in the city. You can't meet anyone who doesn't have some connection to the hospital.”

Dr. Morse is thrilled to see his efforts to save the artwork fall into place. 

“I consider this whole effort a triumph for medicine, for history, for art, for the Family Health Center and for all of Worcester,” he said. 

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