The History of Davis Hospital

Dr. James Wagner Davis
Davis’ NCpedia entry

In 1920, Dr. James Davis realized his boyhood dream with the opening of Carpenter-Davis Hospital. Located on South Center Street, the hospital was a result of an arrangement between Dr. Davis, a prominent surgeon, and Dr. F. A. Carpenter, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist. According to historians, the custom at that time was for a physician to make house calls as well as have a small office for patient visits. With the opening of the 35-bed Carpenter-Davis Hospital, Dr. Davis changed this by establishing a group arrangement with assistants, nurses, technicians, and associate doctors.

Magazine clipping from 1935.

In May of that same year, the hospital established the School of Nursing with only three ladies in the freshman class. Miss Elizabeth Hill, a graduate of Mitchell College and the School of Nursing at Charlotte Sanatorium, (today Carolinas Medical Center), was the entire nursing staff. In addition to organizing the School of Nursing, Miss Hill was the first Superintendent of Nurses at Davis, (considered today Director of Nursing/Chief Clinical Officer). The School of Nursing continued operations until 1984, graduating at least 720 people from the three-year nursing school. Interestingly, all of the graduates were women, except for one man, according to a long-time instructor.

Nurses in training, late 1950’s.

In the hospital’s second year of operation Dr. Carpenter died, leaving Dr. Davis to operate the hospital. While continuing to run the hospital, Dr. Davis began searching for land for a new hospital. He chose a “cow pasture” near the Wagner homestead on West End Avenue, his grandmother’s home. This site would later become the home of his 250-bed hospital.

On December 17, 1925, Davis Hospital moved from its South Center Street location to a handsome, new building on West End Avenue. An article appearing in the local paper, The Landmark, described the new $80,000 hospital as “thoroughly equipped. Of the most approved design and construction and with scientific equipment in every department, the new hospital is one of the most modern and completely equipped institutions of this type in North Carolina.”

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.

Throughout the years, Dr. Davis continued his quest of excellence in healthcare with the addition of a maternity wing, more patient rooms, and expanded surgical facilities. Unfortunately the largest and most significant addition of a diagnostic clinic was completed in September 1955, just three months after his death

Remembered throughout North Carolina as a dynamic, driving businessman and a leader in state and national Republican politics, Dr. Davis was credited with performing over 75,000 surgical procedures, a truly remarkable accomplishment. Announcement of his death brought countless telegrams, letters, and telephone messages of sympathy from many Republican and Democratic party leaders, doctors across the nation, and also from the American Medical Association. Dr. Davis was praised as a visionary who gave his whole life for the advancement of medical science. Abiding by his wishes, Dr. Davis was buried in an unpretentious tomb on the south lawn of the West End Avenue hospital. (Upon sale of the West End Avenue property, Dr. Davis’ tomb was later moved to Davis Memorial Baptist Church in Wilkes County.)

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.

Over time 17 additions were made and the need for a newer more modern facility became apparent. Construction on a $20 million dollar state-of-the-art facility began in April 1983. On March 24, 1984, Davis moved 58 patients from the West End location to their new hospital on Old Mocksville Road, a 149-bed facility, the beginning of the end for the old building.

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.

Unfortunately, the only image I have left of an original script which was found during a trip through the hospital.
The Statesville Historical Collection managed to get a press kit for the movie, which you can see some images of here.

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

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.

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.