The argument over VA Hospital location: History repeating itself.

(Note: this post is adopted from previous posts on, WLKY ulocal, and my dissertation available digitally on the University of Louisville website at )

Veterans Affairs officials held public hearings today to get public feedback over where the new VA Hospital should go.   At least one veteran quoted supported the idea of the new hospital being built downtown in the Louisville Medical Center, but the majority of veterans quoted did not want it downtown.

History appears to be repeating itself.  Since at least 1947, Louisville city leaders have wanted the V.A. Hospital downtown in the Louisville Medical Center.

In April, 1947 Louisville Area Development Association (LADA) Executive Director Kenneth Vinsel went public with the argument that the planned Zorn Avenue site was impractical compared to downtown and he lobbied the Kentucky congressional delegation to that extent.

In 1948, the LADA-commissioned Hamilton Report, which was a hospital plan for the Louisville area recommended that the V. A. Hospital should be kept from being built on Zorn Avenue and be built in the proposed Kentucky Memorial Medical Center.

In accordance with the report, the LADA led City Hall and the University of Louisville in an attempt to sway the V.A. to build its hospital in the planned Medical Center beside the old Louisville General.  They managed to orchestrate this out of the public eye with  no news coverage.

On December 7, 1948, Mayor Charles Farnsley made a long-distance phone call to the pertinent V.A. administrator in Washington, D.C..  Farnsley promised to condemn land beside the Louisville General Hospital site for a V.A. hospital.  About one hour after Farnsley hung up John W. Moore and Arnold Griswold ( two U of L Medical School faculty members) knocked on the same V.A. administrator’s door for a face-to-face meeting over the downtown site proposal.

The V.A.’s objections in 1948 to a downtown move included

  1. they had already spent $300,000 in sunk costs towards planning the hospital, and
  2. changing sites would delay opening the hospital by two year

To go along with the Louisville plan, the V.A. needed to show a savings of $300,000, and have the support of Congress.

Farnsley, Vinsel, U of L President John Taylor, and Board of Alderman President Dann Byck met on December 15, 1948 and agreed on steps to sway the V.A.  Farnsley was to call U.S. Vice President Alben Barkley (the former U.S. Senator from Kentucky) to get his assistance in stalling the V.A..   Byck was to pitch a $2 million bond issue to the Board of Alderman to pay for the land.

Like now, there was veteran opposition in 1949.  Jewish Hospital and Methodist Evangelical Hospital historians Amster and Zingman noted opposition to a downtown location by both the American Legion membership and the V.A. doctors.  The V.A. doctors were concerned about being ‘”taken over by the university professors.”’  The state adjutant for the American Legion in Kentucky said ‘”This is not a Louisville project.  It is for veterans of this whole area. Their interests are to be served and not that of the city’” and that veterans had waited long enough for a new V.A. facility.

A January 22, 1949 Courier-Journal article showed that Byck kept his end of the deal, but newspaper coverage indicates that the local elite failed to convince the V.A. to go along with its plan for the Medical Center.   The cruxes of the V.A. argument for staying its course were that the Federal Government had incurred sunk costs in the Zorn Avenue site, and the constituency of veterans opposed any further delay.

62 years later, the aging V.A. Medical Center is in need of replacement due to safety issues.  While the basic reasons have changed, there is a repeat of history as it is the veterans versus the city fathers, and it is Louisville versus the veterans of the region.

The city fathers (including the Courier-Journal editorial board) want it downtown and the constituency of veterans generally does not.  In 1949, the veterans’ position was the timely construction and opening of the hospital.  Now the veterans’ position is comfort and convenience—they don’t want to drive downtown.  In both 1949 and now the city interest was and is economic development.

The city fathers were a little slow to the draw in the late 1940’s.  It seems that they have been working on the feds for some time–a lot longer than the veterans.

It will be a shock if the hearings today really mean anything and if V.A. Hospital goes anywhere but downtown.  Yes, there will be some grumbling by some veterans who will have to go to the downtown facility, but a downtown V.A. hospital will be seen as an enhancement to  the economic engine downtown that the city fathers have been building for more than 60 years in the Louisville Medical Center.