Abbott Northwestern Hospital: A Midtown Neighbor for 120 Years

Northwestern Hospital, 1900.    Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Northwestern Hospital, 1900.

Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The largest employer? The deepest historical roots? Outstanding commitment to community service? Ask most anyone to name a landmark institution in the Midtown Corridor of Minneapolis, and Abbott Northwestern Hospital will likely be atop their list. Since its founding as a 10-bed charity hospital in 1882, Abbott Northwestern has evolved into the largest non-profit hospital in the Twin Cities. With more than 5,000 employees, 1,300 physicians, and 450 volunteers, the hospital now treats 180,000 patients every year.

A Good Cup of Tea Can Work Wonders: 
The Founding of Northwestern Hospital

On a cold, blustery winter afternoon in November 1882, 43 women arrived at a formal afternoon tea hosted by Harriet Walker. The wife of a prominent businessman and an influential woman in her own right, Mrs. Walker used her social standing and financial wherewithal to achieve progress on a variety of women’s causes. At that historic tea, those present heard a harrowing description of the suffering of the community’s poorest women and children, who lacked access to even the most basic medical care. Within a month, this coalition of women had raised enough money to open the Northwestern Hospital for Women & Children in a small rented house.

Demand for the initial 10 beds at the new charity hospital immediately outstripped capacity. With great energy and commitment, this core group rose to the challenge. Just five years later, in 1887, they saw the opening of Northwestern’s 50-bed permanent home at the corner of Chicago and 27th Street, built for a cost of $36,000. The hospital’s board members each contributed $250 per year to cover the

cost of free beds, while volunteers worked ceaselessly to obtain the equipment, supplies and funds necessary to keep the hospital running. In its early years, the hospital focused on providing its patients with basic medical services in the form of skillful practical nursing, rest, nourishing food, comforting surroundings, and hygiene. An integral component to the hospital’s early success was the on-the-job training offered through its Nursing Training School, which grew quickly from a graduating class of two in 1883 to a class of 40 in 1912.

Amos Abbott: 
The Good Doctor Builds a Hospital

Among Northwestern Hospital’s consulting physicians was the well-known gynecologist and pathologist, Dr. Amos W. Abbott. In 1902, Dr. Abbott opened his own Hospital for Women at 10 East 17th Street. Although not a charity institution, the hospital frequently reduced or waived fees for those who could not pay, a policy entirely consistent with Dr. Abbott’s legendary kindness to his patients and dedication to his craft.

Abbott Hospital quickly developed a reputation for handling serious and difficult cases, and it too soon outgrew its original location. In 1910, following his wife’s successful surgery at Abbott Hospital, Minneapolis milling magnate William Dunwoody built Dr. Abbott a 35-bed hospital at 1818 First Avenue South. The 1918 influenza epidemic and a simultaneous avalanche of tuberculosis cases among children and young adults led to the addition of the T. B. Janney Children’s Pavillion in 1920, bringing the hospital’s total number of beds to 100.

The Modern Era: 
A Partnership to Continue the Tradition of Care

Both hospitals continued to grow in the ensuing decades, as the forces of emerging medical technology and increasing specialization began to gather steam and change began to occur at an ever-more frenetic pace.

By 1939, the financial pressures of the Great Depression forced Northwestern Hospital to cease operating as a charity hospital, although it continued to serve many patients regardless of ability to pay.

The return of veterans following World War II sparked a renewed national focus on health care, and both the philanthropic community and the government allocated large amounts of money for the construction of new medical facilities and the development of new medical technology. By 1964, Northwestern had grown to 395 beds, over 1,000 employees, and a medical staff of 244; in the early 1970s, Abbott Hospital had over 230 beds and a host of new specialized services.

This growth was all part of the rapid evolution of the field of health care, which was the second largest industry in the United States by the mid-1970s. In response to the challenges of this rapid growth, Abbott and Northwestern Hospitals began increasingly to consolidate and cooperate in their activities throughout the 1960s, culminating in an official merger on January 1, 1970. In 1975, the Sister Kenny Institute officially merged into the hospital, adding its institutional expertise in physical rehabilitation to the ever-growing list of specialized medical services available at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

While the corporate structure and governance of Abbott Northwestern has continued to evolve over the years, the hospital’s reputation for quality care remains unchanged. In a recent consumer survey, Abbott Northwestern was the leading metro hospital for overall quality, image/reputation and for having the best doctors and nurses. And last year, HealthGrades, an independent health care quality ratings firm, named Abbott Northwestern as the highest-rated hospital in Minnesota for cardiovascular care.

An Ongoing Tradition of Community Involvement

It is not difficult to imagine that Harriet Walker and Dr. Amos Abbott would be utterly amazed by the institution that grew from their two little hospitals. And yet, it seems equally likely that these two pioneers would recognize something very familiar about Abbott Northwestern, namely, a commitment to community involvement that is their best legacy. As the hospital’s Community Relations Specialist, Joyce Krook, explains, “Because Abbott Northwestern sees itself as a member of this community, it has always been committed to working with our neighbors on issues of mutual concern and interest—especially those that impact the health, safety and welfare of the people who live here.”

This ethos has led to the hospital’s involvement in various community-based job-training initiatives designed to serve the people of the Phillips neighborhood. Since 1997, the hospital has hired more than 200 graduates of Train to Work, a job-training initiative that readies individuals for entry-level positions. In 2000, the hospital entered into a partnership with Children’s Hospitals, HCMC, and the Minneapolis Community & Technical College to offer more advanced career training in the Phillips neighborhood. Together, these entities formed the Health Careers Institute to deliver education and skill training programs that enable students to obtain more advanced, higher-paying jobs in the health care industry. The participating hospitals guarantee a job offer to every student who successfully completes a program and meets other hiring criteria. By providing job training and employment opportunities right in the neighborhood, HCI is reminiscent of the nursing schools operated by the hospitals years ago.

During her 40-plus years with the hospital, Joyce Krook has made Abbott Northwestern’s commitment to its neighborhood a cornerstone of her career. For many years, she has represented the hospital in the Lake Street Council, the Chicago-Lake Business Association, and a variety of other community groups and organizations. In fact, her long service to the community on the hospital’s behalf was memorialized several years ago during reconstruction of the 4th Avenue bridge over the Midtown Corridor. Ms. Krook was among the 50 community members portrayed in a sculpture on the bridge titled “Eyes on the Greenway.”

As a neighbor to the Midtown / Lake Street Corridor, Abbott Northwestern has had a vital interest in the Midtown Greenway from the very beginning. As Joyce Krook points out, “The Midtown/Lake Street Corridor is at our front door, so we naturally feel very connected to the project.” Abbott Northwestern and Allina have contributed significant financial and institutional support to the Midtown Community Works Partnership, recognizing the Greenway’s tremendous potential as an urban treasure.

New Heart Hospital

Abbott Northwestern’s connection to the Greenway is poised to become even more immediate in the near future. Earlier this year, Abbott Northwestern and the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation announced plans to construct a 128-bed Heart Hospital on the south Minneapolis campus to advance the hospital’s vision for excellence in cardiovascular care. When completed in 2005, the building will add 388,000 square feet of space, centralizing the hospital’s cardiac beds and allowing space for future growth. The project reflects a $200 million investment in the Abbott Northwestern campus.

Denny DeNarvaez, the hospital’s chief operating officer, says the decision to build a Heart Hospital is grounded in a vision for cardiovascular care that focuses on the entire patient experience, not just acute intervention of cardiac episodes. Says DeNarvaez: “Our dream of cardiac care includes the active participation by the patient and family in the care process, the inclusion of healing arts with state-of-the-art medical services, taking cardiac services to communities across the state, and a focus on clinical research and teaching to advance the science and art of cardiovascular care. The construction of the Heart Hospital is a vital component of our vision.”

The Heart Hospital is good news for the greater south Minneapolis community, says Eric Eoloff, Director of Community Relations at Abbott Northwestern. “It will serve as a economic development catalyst for Phillips and surrounding neighborhoods, as we recruit more and more employees from the neighborhood for health careers at the hospital, and as more and more employees, patients and families spend their money here in south Minneapolis.”

Planning With the Greenway in Mind

As part of the Heart Hospital expansion, plans are being laid for the construction of a parking ramp at the southeast quadrant of 28th Street and Chicago Avenue to accommodate the hospital’s overflow employee parking need. Recognizing the uniqueness of land south of the hospital campus and north of the Greenway, the hospital has assembled a 20-member Parking Ramp Advisory Committee to solicit and analyze input from a variety of sources concerning design issues. As Eric Eoloff explains, “The hospital’s goal was to ensure that Committee members represent the broad range of interested parties, including the hospital, the West Phillips and Midtown Phillips neighborhoods, the Chicago/Lake Business Association, the Midtown Greenway Coalition, the City and Hennepin County.” The committee will meet twice per month through May. Bob Corrick, president of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, applauds Abbott Northwestern’s efforts to ensure that its parking ramp fits into the redevelopment plans for the Greenway. “It is great that Abbott Northwestern has been sensitive to the needs of the Greenway and has sought community input up front,” he said. “We are hoping to integrate the parking ramp with the Greenway in an aesthetic and inspiring manner, while at the same time serving the needs of the hospital campus and users of the Sears site.”

The long-time presence of this top-flight medical facility and the many jobs it provides is a unique strength along this stretch of the Corridor. Nearly 1,000 of the hospital’s employees live in South Minneapolis. Abbott Northwestern employee Mildred Flowers has firsthand knowledge of the critical role the hospital has to play as one of this community’s largest employers and most active corporate citizens. After graduating with the first class of HCI students, Ms. Flowers obtained a nursing assistant position with Abbott Northwestern, just three blocks from her home. She is now taking the necessary classes at HCI to qualify for the LPN program, and is hopeful that her improved earning capacity will enable her to buy a house in the neighborhood. “I feel lucky that, because of Abbott Northwestern, I really have the total package available to me,“ explains Ms. Flowers, “including a good job and a chance to go to