Anyone who drives the western end of Herring Avenue in Waco on a regular basis has watched the meticulous operation of razing the former Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center.
The more than yearlong process of demolishing the 100-year-old structure in sections is nearing completion, and the question now is what will become of the 14-acre tract left behind.
In the short term, crews will leave behind a green space adjacent to the large existing parking lot until something more permanent comes along, Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center officials said.
Baylor Scott & White owns the property, and officials there have been working with city and community leaders to determine the best use for the land. The greenspace will offer a “fresh start” in creating a development that will benefit the community said Brad Crye, vice president and chief operating officer.
“We continue to engage in discussions with potential developers and remain committed to finding a buyer whose shared values will benefit this community as it moves into its next chapter,” Crye said. “While it has been difficult to say goodbye to a piece of our history, we are excited about the potential this will create for the future development of Waco.”
Crye said that throughout the project, contractors have worked carefully to salvage, reuse and recycle as much material as possible from the 600,000-square-foot facility.
Dean Highland Neighborhood Association President Emily Hinojosa said she is fielding a lot of questions from area residents about the property now that the demolition is coming to a close.
“Our neighborhood association board asked the city of Waco to consider purchasing the property this past summer because we felt like if the city purchased it, we would have a better chance of having input in the development process than if it was sold on the open market,” Hinojosa said. “The neighborhood has long advocated for more green space/park land and that certainly played into the request.”
She said she is holding out hope for that outcome because the city has not said no yet.
Waco City Manager Bradley Ford said the city is aligned with the neighborhood association, and he would not rule out the city buying the site.
“It is a big piece of property in the core of the city and we are interested to see how it develops long-term,” Ford said. “I’m the third city manager who has looked at what will become of that piece of property because it is an important part of the city. Whether we are the owners or somebody else is, we are going to be looking for a real quality development going in there and one that has good input from the neighbors and the city.”
Hospital officials pledged to the city of Waco that they would demolish the building if it was still vacant in 2018. The best chance to repurpose the building and turn it into a state regional mental health facility was dashed when state money was diverted to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and new state mental health facilities were approved instead for Houston and Dallas.
So, keeping their word, hospital officials, who were spending $750,000 a year maintaining the largely vacant facility, reluctantly started the demolition process last year. While enjoying a modern hospital on Interstate 35, the historical significance of the old building is not lost on Hillcrest officials, including Crye.
“The original hospital officially opened on May 25, 1920, but actually served its first patient on May 20, 1920, due to an emergent surgical need,” Crye said. “The first birth occurred on May 26, 1920. Considering the life span of the hospital and its breadth of services, it is conservative to say the staff has served hundreds of thousands of patients and delivered thousands of babies, including myself and my wife.
“There is no doubt the Herring campus served as a beacon of hope on the hill for many throughout its history. But it was the doctors, nurses and staff with a compassion for healing that were most impactful and memorable. It is less about the building than it is the people serving the community, and I believe those are the memories that will prevail in the long run. Proudly, our ministry of healing continues on our new campus on I-35 and our many clinics throughout the Waco area.”
The original facility cost $275,000 to build and originated as Central Texas Baptist Sanitarium. Hundreds of nurses were trained there and lived in the hospital to attend the Hillcrest School of Nursing, including 125 cadet nurses trained to serve in World War II.
Supported by First Calvary, Columbus Avenue and Seventh & James Baptist churches, the hospital began a facilities improvement program in 1938, when the name was changed to Hillcrest Memorial Hospital, according to The Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas. In 1945, the Baptist General Convention of Texas assumed control, and the hospital was renamed Hillcrest Baptist Hospital.