Selling memories at Church Hospital; Closed institution lure buyers as halls echo past 142 years


Some came to the place where Edgar Allan Poe died to snatch up the bargains. Some came as much to buy as to conjure, one final time, deeply held memories. Some came just to walk the halls.

Few were disappointed.

The occasion was the liquidation sale at Church Hospital, a buyer-beware free-for-all where just about every item in the venerable, 142-year-old institution was tagged, wheeled into the open and put up for sale.

The event, which started yesterday and will continue daily until May 22, was yet another death-march moment for the historic hospital.

When the liquidation ends and the inventory inside the sprawling East Baltimore complex is cleared, most of the building will be ready for demolition.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is eyeing the property, long cherished because it treated generations of mostly working-class families. It is now owned by nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The city hopes to take control of Church Hospital, give Hopkins a nearby site, then tear down much of the hospital and build low-income and market-rate housing at the location, which sits atop Washington Hill at Broadway and Fayette Street.

Yesterday, the city plan, which has deeply angered many Washington Hill residents, was the last thing on the minds of the hundreds who pushed through Church's front entrance.

"You know who we are, don't you?" asked Carol Johnson, as she hauled a brass, 5-foot-tall easel she found tucked in a lonely seventh-floor room and planned to buy.

"We're the ghosts. The ones who worked here for years, back to claim a piece of the past."

Not everyone was a "ghost." Most of the about 150 people there as the sale started had never set foot in the hospital, famed partly because Poe died in the complex's oldest wing on Oct. 7, 1849, when it was part of Washington Medical College.

But a handful walking through the hospital's eight floors, like Johnson, had spent years employed there.

The Towson resident worked at the hospital 12 years as a lab worker, quitting in 1996, partly because she was concerned about the increasingly corporate feel of the hospital.

"God, this was a special place," she lamented, noting that her mother, who grew up on nearby Monument Street, was born at Church. "The hospital and the community were linked together."

While Johnson wandered and plied through her memories (she cried when she found a rubber plant a co-worker had taken care of for years, now near dead on the seventh floor), others rushed through the building, determined to find the best deal on big-ticket medical equipment.

Familiar smells

"I smell stainless steel in the air!" said a gleeful nurse, Allen Decker, a manager in St. Agnes Healthcare's supply department, who was loading up on surgical supplies in the hospital's old intensive care unit.

Decker, carting around a blue pair of surgical stirrups he was buying for less than $100, hardly had time to talk, because there were about 40 doctors, nurses and other buyers descending on the equipment.

"Gotta run," he said. "This is like the White Sale at Macy's, and you're cutting into my time."

Thousands of items were up for sale, said Frank S. Long, vice president of Ohio-based National Content Liquidators Inc. (NCL), which was running the event.

In March, NCL -- which in an age of hospital mergers does up to six liquidations nationwide a year -- bought all the building's equipment from Columbia-based MedStar Health, former owner of Church Hospital. MedStar closed the hospital in January, after reporting $3.4 million in operating losses the year before.

X-rays for $75,000

NCL, which handled last year's sell-off of Liberty Medical Center holdings in West Baltimore, will make all of the profits from the liquidation. "Or take all of the losses if we don't do well," said Long, who noted that the most expensive items on sale were the X-ray suites and ultrasound diagnostic equipment, with prices of up to $75,000.

The entire hospital surged with an odd and busy energy as shoppers bopped into rooms brimming with equipment under fluorescent lights.

Some noticed incidentals left by the hospital's last workers and patients. They commented how strange it felt to walk the halls, as if they were moving about a dead, haunted building.

There were employment postings announcing openings at other hospitals, intended for those left to find employment in the hospital's final days last fall. An occasional pin-up reminded nurses about the needs of a sick patient. A heart-shaped helium balloon read: Have a Rainbow Day. One note, taped in the corporate offices, reminded now-gone employees to meet "business objectives."

On the third floor stood two men who looked like rock concert roadies given a bad set of directions to their next gig.

Seth Cifieri and Bill Stevenson, two Baltimore tattoo artists, were far from lost. They were shopping as purposefully as the tweed-coated surgeons.

Cifieri examined a life-like vinyl torso and a plastic arm -- once used for hospital teaching demonstrations -- he was about to buy. "The arm," beamed the goateed owner of Read St. Tattoo Parlor, "it's got a good weight to it. ... This is too cool."

Cifieri said he planned to tattoo the arm and put it in his shop with a sign: Tattoos removed for Free!

The lip-pierced Stevenson said the two came to the liquidation to buy sterilization equipment for their shops in Fells Point and Mount Vernon. Like doctors, tattoo artists "are into sterilization too," he said. But the pair couldn't resist the array of arms and legs, torsos and fake organs on hand.

"Looks like this guys got a blockage," Stevenson said, pulling out a plastic kidney. "It'll look good in the store."

All around Stevenson and Cifieri, doctors and nurses debated buying ultrasonic cleaners and defribulators, air compressors and lights, chairs and plants and scalpels and every other thing you'd find in a hospital.

Sentimental stroll

Some, such as Sherman Powelson, a retired firefighter from Annapolis, just walked the halls, not intending to buy anything. "I just read the ad in the newspaper and decided to come up and see what this was all about," said Powelson, wandering through the hospital's cafeteria, where the keys were still in the cash register.

And Carol Johnson, the lab worker from Towson, spent two hours dragging around the easel simply because it was a last artifact from a place soon to be part of Baltimore's folklore.

She looked inside the rooms where she had worked, the floors where her mother and sister were born, and mused about the past.

"It's eerie," she said, walking through the operating room. "You look around, you see the people who worked here, the patients who lived and died here. Only they are not really there. Time, it shuffles on."

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