Born On The Move: The 1911 Rotation of Magee Hospital

Virginia Montanez remembers when Magee Hospital rolled down the street.


Were you offered the chance to travel back in time to Pittsburgh in 1911, there are some things you should consider before you fire up the ol’ flux capacitor and launch yourself back more than 100 years.

Let me set the scene. Pittsburgh. 1911. It’s filthy. The rivers are essentially open sewers and the skies are veiled with the smoky byproducts of our metals industries.

On Fifth Avenue, you’ll be greeted with the bustle of trolleys, automobiles and horse-drawn wagons all fighting for space on cobblestone streets crisscrossed overhead with webs of drooping wires.

And there will be people. Men in smart suits and Derby hats. Women in swishing dresses and bigger hats. Messenger boys darting this way and that. Newsboys as young as 10 who have been at work since sunup — because effective child labor laws are still not in place. If you’re meeting a companion under the Kaufmann’s clock, it’s a four-sided clock atop a post near the corner of Fifth and Smithfield. Wait there, but don’t inhale too deeply; I don’t think your lungs are ready for 1911 air.

The Original Oyster House has already been open in Market Square for 40 years, but most of the skyscrapers you know don’t exist yet. The tallest building you’ll find is the newly completed Oliver Tower. It has 25 floors.

Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick are still alive, still estranged and still filthy rich.

There is no greenery at the Point other than a small parklet around the old Fort Pitt redoubt. Everywhere else will be concrete, industry, slums, railroad tracks, and that fun roller coaster over by the Exposition Building.

If you escape the smoke for a day at Kennywood, the new “Gee Wiz” Dip the Dips ride sounds delightfully stomach-dropping. But don’t show up in jorts and a Steelers jersey, lest you expose yourself as a time traveler. You’ll need to wear a three-piece suit or a floor-length skirt. This is the price demanded by fashion and the patriarchy.

After Kennywood, you might head to Oakland, where you’ll find the Cathedral of Learning … nonexistent. But look there where Forbes meets Halket, through the thick maple trees. There is the Elizabeth Steel Magee Hospital. And it is … moving?!

Rub your eyes. Look again. Yes, all 51 feet by 132 feet of it — its six, two-story columns, its elevator, bricks, windows, chimneys, porches — the whole hospital is moving at a nearly imperceptible crawl.

Worry not, time traveler. There is an explanation for this sorcery.

Before UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital was the complex you know, it was the repurposed mansion of Pittsburgh politician, businessman and philanthropist Christopher Lyman Magee. I use his full name because Christopher Lyman Magee’s brother was also named Christopher Magee. As it happened, Christopher and Christopher eventually had sons and they each named their sons Christopher Magee.

You might want to toss the latest edition of “100,000+ Baby Names” into your time machine, now that I think of it.

After C.L. Magee died in 1901, his will revealed that a substantial portion of his fortune was to be used to transform his mansion, The Maples, into a hospital; the transformation was dedicated to the memory of his late mother, Elizabeth Steel, to whom he credited his lifelong benevolence. Magee wrote, “It is my wish [that the hospital] shall be open to the sick and injured of all classes, without respect to their religion, creed, color or previous condition.” He also insisted on special attention to pregnant women, whom he directed “be admitted without any questions being asked as to their past lives or names.”

Thus, in January 1911, The Maples opened as The Elizabeth Steel Magee Hospital, under the direction of University of Pittsburgh obstetrics professor Dr. Charles Ziegler. Within a few months, plans for an expansion were solidified; the family home was serving well, but didn’t have enough space. There was a problem, however: The original building was in the way of the expansion plans, and they didn’t want to tear it down.

The year 1911, remember, was a time when: we still didn’t know the flu was a virus; we believed there was only one galaxy; we hauled women in front of judges if their “hysteria” went too far; dentists were injecting cocaine into gums as an anesthetic; and the promised cures for insomnia, rheumatism, backache and liver issues was to hook yourself up to a gadget wired to your home’s electricity, stand on a metal plate and let it “turn loose in your system” all the while praying you didn’t electrocute yourself back to the Dark Ages. Concurrent with all of that, it was decided to pick up an operational hospital and just … move it out of the way.

Under the management of J. Lauer & Sons contractors, the building was raised 6 feet, rotated and moved a total of 112 feet; the goal was a hospital that faced Halket instead of Forbes.

Unbelievably, it was moved with 40-50 patients still inside, and dozens of doctors, nurses and medical students flitting about — but there was no jolting or bumping, and no interruption to water, electricity, gas or telephone services.

This ambitious relocation, with patients still inside, took six weeks of methodical crawling from April to October. During that time, as the hospital inched carefully to its new home, 25 babies were born within its walls — or, as The Pittsburgh Press put it, “The Stork meeting all his engagements and the quarter hundred little ones arriving hearty and sound.”

(The next time you’re trying to make a small number sound like a big number, try using “quarter hundred” in place of 25. “I have a quarter hundred dollars in my checking account” doesn’t sound too terrible.)

Magee Hospital did not escape controversy as it grew throughout the first half of the 20th century. This doesn’t diminish its remarkable founding nor its commendable mission. It opened at a time when most establishments offering obstetric care were discriminatory; poor, vulnerable women had nowhere to turn as they prepared for the arrival of their infants in Pittsburgh. It was this inequality and inadequate care that C.L. Magee sought to alleviate.

The historical record shows that his wishes were fulfilled. Nearly always at capacity until the larger facility opened in 1915, Magee Hospital turned away no one, regardless of their ability to pay, race, religion or creed. Patients were often destitute and in some cases, homeless. Yet these factors did not determine the level of their medical care prior to delivery, nor the length they could stay afterward.

The Maples is gone now, torn down long ago, leaving behind its fence and what we know today as UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. But we also know that long ago, as the summer of 1911 gave way to the crisp breezes of autumn, there where Halket meets Forbes, a mansion was moved 112 feet while 25 babies were born, and it was laid gently down on a new foundation out of which a world-class hospital would grow, living up to Christopher Lyman Magee’s vision of equal care for all the women of Pittsburgh.

Now, before you return to the future, go ride the inclines. But give it a whole day. There are 12.

In her quarterly column, Virginia Montanez digs deep into local history to find the forgotten secrets of Pittsburgh. Sign up for her email newsletter at:

Categories: Dahn Memory Lane, From the Magazine