Normally at this time of year, Akron would be anticipating the annual arrival of thousands of visitors. Many of them come by motorcycle and their collective roar through the city streets signals to residents that Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) Founder’s Day, June 10, approaches. This year, that familiar sound of June will be absent as the celebration has been cancelled due to COVID-19.
As many Akronites know, A.A. was famously founded in the city in 1935. Akron has several landmarks well known in the story of A.A., including Dr. Bob’s Home on Ardmore Ave. and the Gate Lodge at Stan Hywet Hall where Henrietta Buckler Seiberling, daughter-in-law of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company founder F.A. Seiberling, introduced the co-founders Dr. Bob (Dr. Robert Smith) and Bill W. (Bill Wilson). The June 10 celebration commemorates the date of Dr. Bob’s last drink.
At right:The Summa Foundation erected this Ohio Historic Marker style plaque to commemorate the hospital’s pivotal role in alcoholism treatment and its relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous. It was erected when a portion of Olive St. was renamed Dr. Bob’s Way in 2010. (Photo: Charlotte Gintert/Captured Glimpses)
Another important landmark in the history of A.A. and addiction recovery is located just north of the Y-Bridge on North Main Street. St. Thomas Hospital, currently known as Summa Health System – St. Thomas Campus, isn’t significant for its architecture, but for its role in A.A. ‘s history and in modern medicine.
The original hospital building opened in 1922 and was initially operated by the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. In 1935, the Director of Admissions was Sister Mary Ignatia, an often-forgotten figure of A.A’s history, who knew Dr. Bob professionally through their work at the hospital. The two often discussed alcoholism. Chronic alcoholism was generally viewed solely as an affliction of the spirit or, worse, a character flaw. The common “prescribed” treatments were prayer or willpower.
However, Dr. Bob knew from his personal experience as an alcoholic that achieving sobriety was more complicated than nonalcoholics realized. He and Sr. Ignatia believed that effectively treating the physical health effects of alcoholism, such as withdrawal, in addition to treating mental health were vital to successful recovery.
At right: Sister Mary Ignatia and Dr. Bob Smith. The duo created the first medical alcoholic treatment unit in the United States at St. Thomas Hospital in 1935. While Dr. Bob is famous for co-founding Alcoholics Anonymous, Sister Ignatia’s role in A.A. is often forgotten. (Photos: Wikicommons)
The two eventually designed what became the nation’s first medical treatment for alcoholism, making St. Thomas the first hospital in the United States to recognize alcoholism as a medical condition. The first patient was admitted to the program on August 16, 1935. The consistent success of the treatments led to the founding of St. Thomas’s alcoholism treatment unit, St. Ignatia Hall, in 1939. More than 5,000 patients were treated during Dr. Bob and Sr. Ignatia’s tenure at St. Ignatia Hall.
Upon successfully completing treatment, patients were awarded a Sacred Heart Badge from Sr. Ignatia, with the promise to return it to her before they drank again. This tradition is carried on by A.A. with the awarding of coins, chips and medallions for members’ sobriety milestones.
Sr. Ignatia continued to head the program after Dr. Bob’s death until she was transferred to St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland. She went on to transform that hospital’s alcoholism program and helped patients until her death in 1966.
St. Thomas merged with Akron City Hospital in 1989, creating the Summa Health System. It continued to house Summa’s alcoholic and drug treatment programs as well as the behavioral health department. The hospital rapidly grew far beyond its original footprint, with additions being built at least once every decade since its founding in 1922.
At left: The original front entrance of St. Thomas Hospital (Photo: Charlotte Gintert/Captured Glimpses)
But St. Thomas’ role began to diminish in the last decade as Summa consolidated its services to the main campus on East Market Street. The hospital closed its emergency room in 2014. As of the fall of 2019, the only Summa departments still in St. Thomas were behavioral health and wound care services. The Crystal Clinic moved into a 100,000 sq-ft of the complex no longer used by Summa. Additional vacant space was rented out by Summa to other organizations, including the International Institute of Akron and Colman Professional Services.
St. Thomas and St. Ignatia Hall have remained pilgrimage sites for A.A. members and are usually featured during Founder’s Day festivities. In 2010, a portion of Olive St. was renamed Dr. Bob’s Way by the City of Akron. The Summa Foundation also commemorated the hospital’s role in alcoholism treatment by erecting a Ohio Historical Marker style plaque in front of the original building.
However, it appears the final chapter of St. Thomas Hospital’s service to medicine has begun. In October 2019, Summa announced that it would be vacating the site permanently by 2022. Groundbreaking for a new behavioral health department near the main campus is set to begin this summer. The Crystal Clinic has already made arrangements to relocate its St. Thomas services to their other locations. The other tenants have not announced their relocation plans.
Unfortunately, the fate of one of Akron’s most significant historic buildings remains unknown. According to Summa’s 2019 press release, St. Thomas requires $28 to $30 million in updates. As of this writing, no announcement has been made about a potential buyer. The impending merger of Summa and Beaumont Health, currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, does not appear to have changed the decision on St. Thomas’ future sale.
Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist and a photographer. Her favorite quarantine activities are concocting gourmet hot dog recipes and telling her cats repeatedly that they are the very best cats. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com and follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses.