A Brief History of Davis Hospital

Dr. James Wagner Davis
Davis’ NCpedia entry

Davis Hospital, or the “Davis Community Hospital” as you’ll sometimes see it named, was born in 1920 on South Center Street in Statesville, the childhood dream of James Wagner Davis. Originally it was a joint venture with Dr. F.A. Carpenter who was a local ENT doctor, and was known first as the “Carpenter-Davis Hospital”.

Nurses in training, late 1950’s.

From that very first year, there was a nursing school established in the hospital. The first class was only three students, but a name long associated with the hospital appears at that same time.
Miss Elizabeth Hill organized the school of nursing and was the hospitals first superintendent of nursing.
That nursing school would continue on as long as the hospital was on West End Avenue, graduating 720 students between 1920 and 1984, with all of them being women except for one man.

Magazine clipping from 1935.

After only two years at the South Center Street location, Dr Carpenter died, leaving Dr. Davis in charge of the entire hospital. Davis began looking to expand, and set his sights upon family land on West End Avenue in what was then a cow pasture next to his own grandmother’s home.

The Davis home.

By December of 1925, the new building was a reality. With $80,000 (or about 1.2 million dollars today) being spent on it’s construction, it was state of the art with the newest and best equipment, equal to just about any other hospital in NC at the time,

In a paper written by Dr. Davis, he cited some of the firsts that he and his hospital were responsible for, such as:
• One of the first hospitals in North Carolina to use a radiographoscope to view x-ray films. (Radiographoscope was invented by a North Carolina physician).
• One of the very first Emergency Departments in North Carolina to be open and staffed by a physician 24 hours a day, seven days a week – not unusual today, but a significant accomplishment in the 1920s.
• One of the first hospitals in North Carolina and one of the first in the United States to install air conditioning in the operating rooms. Utilizing air conditioning is a standard practice today, but not in the early years of healthcare.
• One of the first hospitals in the United States to use glucose intravenously.
• An early organizer of blood-donor services and had a blood bank very early in its history.

Waiting room in the late 1950’s.

Davis worked diligently to see that his hospital succeeded. It expanded many times during his life and was even undergoing a major expansion when he died in 1955.

Davis was a state-renowned doctor, having performed more than 75,000 surgeries during his life. His letters were published in newspapers and his papers were published in journals. People came from all over the state and some from out of state to receive the best care available at the time.
Per Davis’ own instructions, after his death he was buried on the lawn of the hospital he had devoted his life to.
When the hospital was abandoned, his tomb was then moved to Davis Memorial Baptist Church in Wilkes County, which was named for Davis, and one of many recipients of his charity through the years.

Dr. Davis died while a new wing was still being constructed. You can see the beginnings of it in the background, with his tomb in the foreground.

Despite all the additions to the hospital, the building was beginning to show it’s age, and by the 1980’s, plans were being made to move to a new building. Construction of the new “Davis Regional Hospital” would begin in April 1983 with the price tag of $20 million dollars.
By March of 1984, some patients began to be transferred from the old building to the new.

Davis’ history after that is a little murky. There were plans for some of the doctor’s offices and services to remain in place for short time- only 4 months if newspaper accounts are correct. Whatever the time table, the building was completely empty just 5 years after the initial move.

There was also talk in the early 90’s of a remodel, with the space being used for apartments or a retirement/nursing home. Some amount of work was done, but from the looks of what was done, I believe it was much later. Mostly it appears fresh paint was sprayed in some areas. It’s likely asbestos became an issue as the years progressed. And, as is the case with old buildings, they tend to deteriorate fast when left empty. By the time I was visiting Davis in the early 2000’s (20 years exactly after it closed), the old building was really already too far gone.

One of the strange things about old buildings is the life they end up leading after their original purpose is lost. I’m sure Dr. Davis would never have imagined a future where his noble creation would be used in the production of a movie.
In November, 1989 director James Cummins rented the space as a filming location for his horror movie The Boneyard.

During filming, a portion of what was (I believe) the Pediatric Clinic caught fire. No major damage was apparently done.

In 2003 while exploring the hospital with several other people we stumbled upon a script for the movie which is now available as a PDF. You can find that on the page I have dedicated to the movie.

Clip from the movie showing some of the pyrotechnics that likely started a fire.

The next verified use I know of is in the late 90’s/early 2000’s when a security company rented the main (old) building as an office. They are the ones who gave me permission to enter the building the first couple times in 2003. They eventually left the building as well, and after that, the deterioration and vandalism accelerated.

After a lengthy battle over property rights and environmental issues, Davis Hospital was finally demolished in September 2017. Construction began shortly thereafter on the new Mitchell Community College health sciences building, which now takes up a portion of the space that was once occupied by the old Davis Hospital.

The new health sciences building circa 2021, viewed from where the front steps of the old hospital once were.

While it’s a shame something of the old building couldn’t have been saved, it’s good to know that the space is still being used for educating healthcare workers. I’d like to think Dr. Davis would be satisfied with that, at least. In a way, it’s a continuance of the oldest tradition at Davis Hospital, as from it’s very first year, nurses were being trained there.

What I feel is a mark against his legacy, however, is what the new Davis Regional Medical Center became.
Dr. Davis had a vision to bring cutting edge healthcare to the local community, even to those who could not afford it. People came from all over the state and even other states in order to receive some of the best care possible at the time.
There are certainly still people alive today who remember stories of his generosity; performing life saving surgeries for free on patients who could never have otherwise been in the same OR as a skilled surgeon like James Wagner Davis.

When the hospital closed, what opened across town in it’s place was a much smaller private hospital which quickly gained the reputation as a place only people with money could afford to be seen.
I don’t know what happened between Dr. Davis’ death and the end of the hospital he created that led to where we are today, but the building that took his name and proudly displays his likeness in it’s lobby has very little in common with Dr. Davis or the hospital he created. Indeed, the world of medicine as a whole would likely be unrecognizable to the Wilkes county boy who grew up to be a nationally renowned surgeon.

If you would like to know more about Dr. Davis, including his apparent secret mission to Russia during WWI, LeGette Blythe’s 1956 biography “James W. Davis : North Carolina Surgeon” is available for download from the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

If you would like a more concise history of the hospital from it’s opening until 1969, I am including David S. Caldwell’s history of Davis, which was written using materials that are no longer readily available today, such as Lillie Norkett and Dr. J.S. Holbrook’s personal communications and letters which were written to Caldwell.

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