The News Hospital

Former newspaper building finds new life as a COVID-19 infirmary

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I had worked in the third floor newsroom of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. for years until last spring, when the other remaining staffers and I moved out. Almost exactly one year later, I returned to the newsroom, this time in a tour group led by a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.

The military man showed us a space that was all but unrecognizable: the structure was gutted and the rows of newsroom desks were gone, replaced by hospital cubicles for COVID-19 patients, including 33 negative pressure isolation rooms. Signs throughout the hospital read “Cold Zone,” “Warm Zone” and “Hot Zone,” reminding workers to take protective steps in certain areas.

The building’s 401 beds will sit empty for now, serving as extra space just in case the new virus overwhelms other hospitals in our region. The tour was a strange, disorienting experience, one that would have seemed unimaginable even a few months earlier.

Our tour was a poignant reminder of the head-spinning pace of changes in recent times: first the impact of the internet and associated economic shocks on the news industry, then the recent impact of COVID-19 on nearly every aspect of daily life.

To help me understand these changes, I called Gerald French. He had joined The Commercial Appeal as a carpenter and mechanic in the late 1970s. He would stay for more than 40 years, maintaining building systems and printing presses at the newspaper’s huge office and production facility in the city’s downtown.

Over the years, waves of job cuts, outsourcing and voluntary departures reduced the total staff from about 1,500 to fewer than 100.

Now 69 years old, French was one of the last to stay on. Then in May 2019, the remaining newspaper staff finally moved out of the building. There was no need for a building mechanic, and French was laid off, too.

But this spring, he was brought back to the old building to help an engineer understand the building’s systems, including its heating and air conditioning units.

495 Union Ave.

“Well, I’m glad to see the building get a new life out of it,” French said.

He had thought that the empty building’s favorable location near the internationally famous Beale Street blues music entertainment district would prompt a big company to tear it down and replace it with a hotel.

The building’s transition to a hospital is one of the stranger developments in the history of a newspaper whose presence in Memphis dates to a predecessor publication founded in 1841.

The Commercial Appeal first began operating from the big site at 495 Union Ave. in 1933, when it occupied a former Ford assembly plant for Model Ts, my colleague David Waters reported for an article last year.

That building was twice expanded. A newly built newspaper production building launched in 1975, and a new adjoining five-story office building opened in 1977. The old Model T building was demolished the following year.

The buildings were full of people. “It was jumping all the time. 24 hours a day,” French said. For a time, the building was not just home to The Commercial Appeal, but an afternoon newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar, which closed in 1983.

The production plant at 495 Union was still a very busy place when I arrived as a newsroom intern in 2001, with a nighttime scene of humming printing presses and bundles of papers being loaded into trucks.

Anyone who has worked in the newspaper industry knows the rest of the story. We changed owners several times: from Scripps, to Journal Media Group, then Gannett. Rounds of layoffs and outsourcing sharply reduced the head count. In April 2017, print operations were outsourced to a newer plant in Jackson, Tenn.

Clearly, it made no sense to have so few employees rattling around in a giant building equipped for so many more.

The property was purchased in April 2018 by an investment group called Twenty Lake Holdings, a subsidiary of Alden Global Capital.

The other remaining staffers and I continued to work at 495 Union Ave. until May 2019, when we left for a smaller office space nearby and said goodbye to our old building. We had no idea that less than a year later, it would find a completely different use.

The Crisis

One scientific study this spring predicted that without social distancing to prevent COVID-19 transmission, the Memphis metro area would experience nearly 41,000 intensive care unit admissions and more than 8,000 deaths.

Predictions like that led the government to start building overflow hospitals.

The Army Corps of Engineers scouted numerous sites in the Memphis area before selecting the empty former home of our newspaper. It has some obvious advantages: it’s a big, centrally located building that’s close to other major hospitals. Official confirmation of the site selection came on April 13.

On April 25, Tennessee governor Bill Lee visited Memphis, toured a coronavirus testing site and toured the construction of the new hospital inside The Commercial Appeal’s old building.

Then the governor emerged from the building, strode out into the front parking lot and took off his black face mask to talk with a group of reporters, all of whom wore face masks of their own. He called it “an impressive facility.”

The former newspaper plant will house COVID-19 patients in intermediate stages of the disease, said Dr. Scott Strome, executive dean of the medical school at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the institution that will staff the hospital.

Most of the patients will need oxygen support, but only a few will need mechanical ventilation, he said. Very sick patients will go to other hospitals.

The sickest patients at 495 Union Ave. will stay on the third floor, which formerly housed the newsroom and now has 28 regular hospital beds and 33 negative pressure isolation rooms, enclosed spaces meant to prevent the virus from seeping out. This specialized area is meant for patients who deteriorate so fast they can’t be moved elsewhere in time, said Dr. Richard Walker, the emergency medicine doctor who will serve as the hospital’s CEO.

The biggest number of patients—about 260—will stay on the fourth floor of the production building, said Colonel Zachary Miller, commander of the Memphis district for the Army Corps of Engineers. That’s the former industrial space that formerly served as the mailroom, a sorting and production area.

Of the more than 30 “alternate care facility” projects in convention centers, old hospitals, hotels and other sites around the country, The Commercial Appeal stands out, said Miller.

“This one is unique. This is only one being done at a large commercial site.” Unlike other sites in arenas or convention centers, it will face no pressure to close down quickly, he said. It’s also the only hospital being built in a former newspaper production building.

The total cost of the Memphis renovation project is $51.3 million, paid for by state and federal governments, according to Jim Pogue, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And that’s not counting the cost of beds, furniture, equipment or staffing.

The state of Tennessee had agreed to pay Twenty Lake Holdings a monthly lease sum of $70,000, plus utilities and other expenses.

The contract runs to at least April 20, 2021, and can be extended for another six months. Walker said the university has told him to be prepared to lead the hospital for at least two years.

The hospital might not see patients at all. “Candidly, we hope this building is never, ever, ever, used,” Strome said, “This building, I think to echo the governor’s comments, is really a safety valve.”

The Hospital is Complete

On May 18, the governor was back in town again, this time to announce the formal completion of the hospital. It had taken just over a month since the announcement to gut and retrofit the building, a remarkable sprint carried out by hundreds of workers.

Lt. Col. Nathan Molica led a group of reporters into the building, showing us the ground floor entrance, which still smelled of paint and where a sign by a desk still read: “Classified Ads.” We saw the patient beds on the first floor, near the spot where I had filled out my human resources paperwork when I joined the company years earlier. Each hospital cubicle had curtains for privacy and was equipped with lighting, a bag of toiletries and plugs for oxygen and other medical purposes.

We saw the remodeled loading dock where ambulances can now drive into the building, then rode a freight elevator to the fourth floor space, once industrial and now a sterile hospital wing, the size of several football fields. The final count here: 254 beds.

I wasn’t the only journalist on the tour who had formerly worked in the building. Among the others was reporter Jane Roberts, now with an online startup called the Daily Memphian.

She noted the dramatic change in colors: the jarring industrial yellows and oranges of the fourth floor were gone.

“Now the floors, all of them, are a creamy white, including the freshly sprayed exposed ceilings and duct work,” she wrote. “Walking through all those floors, so quiet, and in a way so unsettling, reminded me of being lost in the mausoleum at Memorial Park. It’s lovely, but it’s also hard to navigate its stony silence. This project is like that. It’s hard to celebrate something that symbolizes what its use would mean for Memphis.”

The building exists for a horrific disaster, one that we hope we will never see.

Another reporter with thoughts on the project was Desiree Stennett, who had covered the governor’s visit on April 25. She had moved to Memphis from Florida and joined The Commercial Appeal staff in October 2018, after a series of job cuts and staff departures. 

I asked her later what she was thinking on the day of the news conference. She said she wondered what the building looked like on the inside because by the time she worked at 495 Union, the building was mostly empty.

“There were still everybody’s old desks in there. People’s old Rolodexes that they’d abandoned,” she said. “Dark corners of the building that in the several months that I’d worked there I had never even ventured into.”

Stennett also said another thought crossed her mind: that perhaps she might end up in that very hospital for treatment.

And she noticed the old sign for The Commercial Appeal still in front of the building.

“There has been a lot of pain as jobs have been cut and the staff has been reduced over and over and over again in the years before I got here, of course,” Stennett said. “But had it not happened, then the building would not have been available for this purpose either.”

She added it’s a good thing that the newspaper building is there for the city when it matters. “When we work in the way that’s most effective—that’s what we are. We’re there in a time of need for our community.”

Daniel Connolly worked as a summer intern for The Commercial Appeal in 2001, returned as a full-time staffer in 2006 and remains on staff today. He has contributed to The New York Times, USA TODAY and other publications and is the author of “The Book of Isaias: A child of Hispanic immigrants seeks his own America,” a narrative nonfiction work about children of Mexican immigrants coming of age in Memphis (St. Martin’s Press, 2016). He is married to Ayleem Connolly, a teacher with a background in media who contributed photos for this article.

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