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Dr. Van Buren's historic hospital
Former Elm Street sanitarium gaining attention
W VB Sanitarium - Exterior
Designed by pioneering black architect Wallace Rayfield, the 97-year-old former hospital at 38 Elm St. has lost some of its decorative trim. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

Dr. Harvey Van Buren, the first African-American physician in Statesboro, opened his Van Buren Sanitarium on Elm Street in December 1918, Candra E. Teshome told the Bulloch County Historical Society. Note the year, 1918.

"At the time, his practice was very important to the community because during the flu epidemic after World War I, he served the community, African-Americans and Caucasians in the community, at that location," Teshome said Monday.

Van Buren continued to practice medicine here until his death in 1964, she said.

Teshome, the development clerk in the city of Statesboro's Planning and Development Department, said she took an interest after Code Compliance Officer Eric Short informed her that 38 Elm St. had been Van Buren's hospital. Short was identifying dilapidated structures for the city's program to encourage owners to either demolish them or make improvements.

"He came across 38 Elm St. some time ago, and he had faith that this particular building was worth preserving," Teshome said.

Recently, a Georgia Southern University interior design class and the building's current owner have also shown interest its preservation.

As the Historical Society's guest speaker, Teshome shared her research into Van Buren's life and the creation of his hospital. She also talked about how the entire neighborhood might qualify for the National Register of Historic Places.

Born in 1884 in Sumter, South Carolina, Van Buren obtained his medical degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1907. After starting a medical practice in D.C., he completed a post-graduate course at the Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1910. Then he moved to Louisville, Georgia, where he practiced medicine until 1915, when he moved to Statesboro, Teshome said.

The Rayfield connection

Van Buren commissioned Wallace A. Rayfield, who had also attended Howard University, to design the sanitarium, according to Teshome and other sources. It was the first hospital for African-Americans in Bulloch County.

Rayfield, the second formally educated black architect in the United States, also designed a number of churches in the South and Midwest, including the famous 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago. Teshome listed eight other prominent churches, out of 359 known structures Rayfield designed.

"So here in Statesboro, we have a building that is attributed to someone who contributed so much to their professional field," she said.

Through the association with both Rayfield and Van Buren, the Van Buren Sanitarium building would probably help the entire Elm Street neighborhood qualify for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, Teshome said. A link with one or more historically significant people is one of the four criteria, any one or more of which can suffice.

National Register eligibility

In 1992, the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources conducted a survey that identified several historic structures on Elm Street, Church Street and the connecting Cotton Avenue and Van Buren Street.

"Unfortunately, over the years, we have lost some structures due to fire and demolition, but the majority of these structures remain intact," Teshome said, after sharing copies of a map.

The DNR identified the Historical First African Baptist Church, organized in 1889 and with a current building dating from 1900-1905, as anchoring the neighborhood. The church might also help the neighborhood qualify for the National Register of Historic Places under the "event" criterion, Teshome said.

With the Rayfield connection, the hospital might qualify because of the architecture itself, she said.

So, the neighborhood could possibly qualify through three of the four criteria. But the Van Buren Sanitarium might not qualify on its own because of its condition, Teshome said.

"I think that this is a great community that has undergone some distress, gone through financial stress in terms of the structures, but I certainly believe that it's worth saving. I think that it's worth taking a look at and determining whether or not it should be registered because I think it offers a great amount of historical cultural resource here," she said.

Teshome previously attended the University of Maryland and is now studying for a degree in urban planning with a focus in historic preservation from Arizona State University.

Not well preserved

Today, 38 Elm St. looks like a large, two-story wood-frame house with a brick foundation and chimneys. Portions of the interior have boarded-up windows, and some sections of wallboard are missing.

Teshome said she had not been inside the building. But a Statesboro Herald reporter recently toured it with the current owner, Glennera Martin, the retired educator who is the Bulloch County Board of Education member from District 5. Martin and her twin sister were born at the sanitarium in 1943. Van Buren was their family physician, and the hospital was also his residence, Martin said.

She has never lived in the building, but has owned it about 25 years. At first she rented it out as a home, but she stopped after quarreling tenants started a fire inside, she said. The fire-damaged material was removed, but the building has sat vacant for years.

On the day the reporter visited, Martin was there with GSU professor Amy Boyett and her Design Studio 5 students. Studio 5 is the final class students need to graduate with a bachelor's degree in interior design. Students were taking measurements that could be used to guide future planning.

In an interview, Martin said she would like to keep the sanitarium as private property for now, but she also wants to see it repaired and maintained.

"I'm trying to hold onto it, but I want to do something to improve the community," Martin said. "I don't want it to remain as-is."

A neighborhood listing on the National Register of Historic Places does not restrict what owners can do with their property, Teshome told the Historical Society.

"At this stage, the city isn't exactly asking or requesting anything," Teshome said. "We're just trying to get the community to be aware of the resource that's over there."

If any steps were taken, the next might be another neighborhood survey, she said.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.



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