A Brownfield Success Story: the Jefferson Davis Hospital Before and After


Brownfields are, in short, pieces of real property, which—by the suspected presence or actual presence of hazardous pollutants, chemicals, or contaminants—have been held back from reuse, redevelopment, or commercial growth.

Although it might sound like a condemning blow for a once-successful property to be declared a brownfield, closed down, and cordoned off from the public, there are many former sites that have become prosperous centers of commerce, art, industry, and even sports, post-cleanup.


Remediation to the Rescue

This brownfield success story is about the historic former Jefferson Davis Hospital property in Houston, Texas. The property—listed as a State Archaeological Landmark in 1995 for the Civil War graveyard it was built on—was the grounds upon which Houston’s first indigent hospital was founded in 1924.

After larger hospital facilities were needed when the population of the city boomed, the hospital closed its doors. Clinics, treatment centers, and lowly storage units filled its place in the years that followed, until the haunting edifice was finally abandoned. The empty hospital then became a haven for the homeless, gangs, and vandals.

In this fallen state, the building plunged into ever-worsening disrepair for some time before city activists began to look at the the property with renewed interest. But by the time the surrounding Washington Avenue community and the city of Houston had decided to renovate the property, almost 30 years had passed, and it was in bad shape.

Before Brownfield Cleanup and Renovation Jefferson Davis Hospital

Back of Building Before Renovation

The Cultural Arts Council of Houston recognized the need for affordable housing for the eclectic mix of artists, jazz musicians, and stage actors who lived in the neighborhood. In response, ArtSpace Projects, a nonprofit group, purchased the property from Harris County in 2002 to do just that.

In 2003, the EPA pledged a $200,000 Brownfields Cleanup grant to Jefferson Davis Artists Lofts (a partnership between ArtSpace and Avenue CDC, a Houston non-profit group for the development of local affordable housing) to help turn the hospital into a magnet for the city’s most promising artists.

But before any new projects, construction, or redevelopment could commence, a complete environmental assessment of the decaying, graffiti-sprayed site was necessary.

What the assessment crews found was staggering: Now the once brightly red-bricked three-story building with stone veneer and a majestic white portico held up by Ionic-style fluted columns had turned into a lusterless, dilapidated shade of its former self. Asbestos leaked everywhere, from the roof, walls, and floor tile. An underground storage tank (UST), which once held gasoline for the original hospital’s ambulances, was discovered and found to be in dire condition. Lead-based paint colored the crumbling walls and eroded finishing.

Money from an EPA Brownfields grant was used to help remediate the site and restore the battered property. The cleanup included the removal of the underground storage tank (UST) and lead abatement. A confirmatory excavation of the soil was carried out to see if any petroleum had leached. The soil samplings came back negative for oil. Luckily, further excavation found that groundwater assessments and soil monitoring would not be necessary.

Asbestos abatement was organized for the insulation from the roofing material, flooring tile, pipes, and boilers. And in 2004, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality granted a No Further Action letter, meaning the site was now legally ready for renovation.

Approximately $6.2 million was leveraged for the complete renovation of the hospital by ArtSpace. In 2005, the transformation was finally complete. The ArtSpace project had turned the ramshackle building into an impressive 34 loft-style apartment living space, re-christened the Elder Street Artists Lofts. An environmentally sustainable, living “green” roof was added. Yet some of the more beautiful neoclassical elements of the original hospital were retained, including the terrazzo floors, the tall ceilings, and the large sunlight-capturing window openings.

After Brownfield Cleanup and Restoration Jefferson Davis Hospital

Façade of Elder Street Artists Lofts After Renovation

As you can see brownfield-status is not the kiss of death for a property. It is certainly not as bad as a Superfund site label, but most importantly, it can be remedied. If we do not renovate and cleanup our nation’s existing brownfield sites, and merely forget about them, we will never know what good—however unlikely—can come of these overlooked properties, as in the case of the former Jefferson Davis Hospital.


If you would like to know more about brownfield cleanup or environmental remediation, give us a call today at 888-681-8923 or click here to email us.


Photo credit: ArtSpace.org