Walter Harper, an Irish immigrant, lived in Philadelphia in the late 1820s. After 1825, the city of Detroit began to grow since the Erie Canal made it more feasible for eastern residents to reach the city. Gradually, settlers came to establish farms in southeast Michigan and Detroit developed as a port on the Great Lakes. A growing city is likely to attract migrants and Walter Harper decided to move to Detroit. Similar to many who came to Detroit, this was an excellent decision for him.
Apparently, he was friends with an Irish woman in Philadelphia who had a daughter named Mrs. Ann Martin. Mrs. Martin was down on her luck and needed employment. Apparently within a short time, she lost her husband and a young child. Her mother convinced Walter Harper to take Ann Martin to Detroit with him to work as his housekeeper.
Within twenty or so years in Detroit, Mr. Harper became a successful land owner. I believe he owned land in the city and in the suburban area that is now known as Harper Woods. That suburb is named after him. Mrs. Martin apparently began her career in Detroit selling products in the local farmers’ market and then went on to establish a business that supplied restaurants with the provisions they needed. I infer that she was a well-known Detroit figure in the mid-Nineteenth Century.
By the 1850s, there were several Detroit hospitals run by orders of nuns. In February, 1859, Mr. Harper donated property he owned on John R for the establishment of a Protestant charity hospital. He may also have donated funds at this time or, perhaps, promised that a share of his eventual estate would go to the new hospital. The next month Mrs. Ann Martin made a similar commitment, although I do not know if this involved land or property. I believe she also owned property in the city.
Bureaucracies move slowly and it was not until May, 1863, that the legal work was accomplished to formally establish the hospital in accord with city and state rules. Shortly thereafter, the federal military recognized the need for a hospital in Detroit that would care for injured veterans returning from the Civil War. They used the legal structure of the Harper Hospital and hastily constructed wooden buildings on the John R site to serve the medical needs of veterans in the Detroit area. In 1864, veterans were the first patients of the hospital. Two years later, the hospital began accepting civilians. The hospital itself was named for benefactor Walter Harper but a street linking John R. to Woodward in front of the hospital was named Martin Place, honoring benefactor Ann Martin. I believe Martin Place was later removed.
For at least a decade and a half, Harper Hospital used the wooden buildings the military had constructed. Mr. Harper died in 1867 and Ann Martin in 1875. By the early 1880s, the hospital had funds to construct a large Victorian style building. A picture of it is shown in an insert on this page. It was designed by the well-known architect, Elijah E. Myers who designed state capitols for Colorado, Michigan and Texas. He also claimed that his design was used for the state capitol erected in Indianapolis.
After the new Victorian building opened, Harper Hospital became a focal point for medical activities in Detroit. The hospital established a school of nursing in 1884. Grace Hospital was founded nearby in 1883 and, three years later, the Children’s Hospital of Michigan was established. In 1915, the city of Detroit established the first of its several hospitals designed to serve residents, Detroit Receiving Hospital. I believe that the city’s hospitals provided free care, at least to those who could not afford to pay. In 1868, women in Detroit organized a facility to care for unmarried women and their children. I infer that facility became a women’s hospital and was later renamed Hutzel Women’s Hospital in honor of a long serving board member.
In 1985, the Detroit Medical Center was formed as an amalgamation of Harper Hospital, Grace Hospital, Hutzel Hospital, the Children’s Hospital of Michigan and the Detroit Receiving Hospital. In 2010, the Vanguard Health System from Nashville, Tennessee purchased or took over the Detroit Medical Center. I assume the new owners wanted to preserve the tax exempt status of the Detroit Medical Center. The Vanguard firm assumed the debts and pension obligations of the Detroit Medical Center. In addition, they promised to make capital investments of at least $850 million and, possibly, as much as $1.5 billion in the facilities of the Detroit Medical Center. Most of these investments were to be made in the city of Detroit at their huge campus along John R. In June 2013, the Tenet Health Care system of Dallas Texas purchased the Vanguard Health System so they are now the firm that runs the hospital complex. The campus of the Detroit Medical Center adjoins to other major medical facilities: the John D. Dingell Veteran’s Medical Center and the Karmanos Cancer Center.
You find this hospital called Harper Hospital; Harper University Hospital or Harper-Hutzel Hospital.
Book describing the history of Harper Hospital: Frank B. Woodford, Harper of Detroit: The Origin and Growth of a Great Metropolitan Hospital (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1964).
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description prepared: January, 2017
Return to Hospitals
Return to Homepage
Return to Medical Facilities
Return to Homepage