The Campus That Time Built: Fitzsimons Army Hospital

At the center of the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, CO lies the old the Fitzsimons Army Hospital or also known as Building 500. These days the old hospital is used for office space for the continuously growing Colorado University (CU) operated campus, but at one time this building served to be one of the most important developments to ever happen to the Denver Metro Area.

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The Story of Fitzsimons Army Hospitals past. @wikimedia

The Fitzsimons Army Hospital was the place where President Eisenhower recovered from his heart attack back in 1954, the birthplace of former Secretary of State and Presidential Nominee, John Kerry, and the home to a bustling military community.

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Fitzsimons Army Medical Center Pediatrics Clinic @Aurora History Museum Archives

I was personally the last generation of babies to be born at Fitzsimons Medical Center, being born at the end of 1991. My younger brother was born at another hospital in 1996, just days before the official closure of Fitzsimons.

My mom would tell me stories of my first few days at the hospital. How I would wake up randomly crying and would then suddenly stop after I effectively woke up the other babies in the nursery. A nurse working there absolutely adored me and would play different types of music for me on the radio, just to see how I would react. I was considered to be quite lively for a newborn. 

While having me, my mom experienced complications and my first days after the hospital were spent with my dad at home without my mom.  It was no surprise that Fitzsimons would be closed within a few years after years of falling behind in needed upgraded. Upon the announcement of the hospital’s closure, my dad bought a commemorative painting that hung in the living room for years. He was proud that his little girl got to be born in such a historical place.

The origins of the Fitzsimons Army Hospital stem back to World War I when an extra facility was needed to treat the number of recovering soldiers who were injured overseas. Denver was considered an ideal location because of its warm and dry climate proved to be beneficial for recovering health. The hospital opened up as Army Hospital 21 in 1918, but two years later it would be renamed as Fitzsimons Army Hospital in honor of Lt. William Fitzsimons, who was the first American medical officer killed during the Great War.

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The original Fitzsimons Army complex (1925) @Aurora History Museum Archive

The medical facility was only meant to be temporary and by the the Great Depression rolled around was falling into disrepair. The medical facility employed more than 1,000 people in the Denver area and eliminating those jobs could prove to be catastrophic for the growing community. The hospital needed to be modernized and much work was done to make the case that Fitzsimons Army Hospital was worth keeping around. A visit from President Franklin D. Rooselvelt insured that the hospital would remain open and necessary funds would be provided to update the facility.

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The original entrance to the Fitzsimons Army Hospital @Colfax Avenue
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Nurses for the hospital
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A car being used as an ambulance. (1931) @Aurora History Museum Archive

In 1941, the iconic art deco Building 500 was built and at the time served to be the largest structure in Colorado.  Less than a week after the dedication of the new building, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States became involved with World War II. Soldiers from the war began to fill the facility and more buildings had to be constructed. By 1943 Fitzsimons had become the largest military hospital in the world.

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The newly built Building 500. @Aurora History Archive

 

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Postcard of the new Fitzsimons Army Hospital Building (Building 500) @Aurora History Archive

 

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Three U.S. Army Sikorsky H-34A-SI Choctaw sit in a field in front of the Fitzsimons. 

Soon a community began to form on the complex, with housing structures and amenities that insured no one would ever have to travel far from the area. Fitzsimons became the Arm’s medical training center and the premiere facility for soldiers recovering from tuberculosis.

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Denver Bronco’s Wendell Hayes visits patients during the Vietnam War.
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Nurse and soldier at the hospital (1950s)

 

As time went on, the Fitzsimons became obsolete and was officially closed down in 1996.

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Building 500 in 1984 @Aurora History Museum Archive

Today you won’t see servicemen or patients crowding the entrance of Building 500, but you will see a series of busy college students as they make across the Anschutz campus. It seems that decision to list Fitzsimons Army Hospital as a landmark would help determine the future development of the surrounding area. 

Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, CO

 

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Much work has been done to preserve the building itself and exterior wise not much has changed. Every so often repairs are made to the building to help maintain it’s unique aesthetic design.

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The first two floors of the building have the very same art deco admonishments that they were present over 60 years ago. It’s a fascinating time capsule that propels you back to a different time without e-mails and cellphones. Visitors can still even use some of the few phone booths to make a call.

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The top floor of the building has also been restored to its former glory. An old-style auditorium still is put to use and curious visitors can also visit a suite of rooms that were used by President Eisenhower when he was recovering from his heart attack in 1955. Those interested in experiencing a little bit of Colorado history can request a tour to view the President Eisenhower rooms.

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President Eisenhower during his stay at Fitzsimons Army Hospital @Aurora History Museum Archives
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Media frenzy after word of President Eisenhower’s heart attack.

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Those that follow down a path away from the hospital’s main entrance will find a special designated memorial for soldiers who perished in World War I.

The memorial reads…

“In memory of the officers, nurses, and enlisted men of the medical department united states army who lost their lives during the World War. This tablet is erected by the coworkers of the medical department.”

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There are many hidden gems like this hidden around the Anschutz campus.

 

Look below for even more pictures of Fitzsimons Army Hospital in the present day.

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Sources:

Colorado Encyclopedia

 

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