From St. John’s Hospital to Prairie St. John’s, fixture of old Fargo nears demolition

The building that housed the former St. John's Hospital and most recently Prairie St. John's will be demolished after 123 years of service.

In a black and white photo, women in white skirts and hats pose on the steps of a brick building.
Nursing staff from St. John's Hospital in an undated photograph from the early 1900s.
Contributed / Prairie St. John's

FARGO — St. John’s Hospital was born of humble beginnings, first occupying the former Catholic bishop’s residence across from Island Park.

The hospital stood at 510 4th St. S. for more than a century, expanding with additions and evolving as it endured a series of purchases and affiliation changes, switching roles from a traditional medical-surgical hospital to a psychiatric hospital when it became Prairie St. John’s.

Now, after 123 years of service, the stately old hospital is nearing its end. The building was vacated in January, when the new 132-bed Prairie St. John’s Hospital opened next door, and is awaiting demolition.

The old hospital still holds an odd assortment of furnishings, including chairs, mattresses and filing cabinets, ghostly remnants that provide hints of the activity that once took place within the walls.

“A lot of history here,” said Carol Frovarp, chief financial officer, who started in 1997, around the time the hospital became Prairie St. John’s, She stood on the fifth floor, where her office once was located, on a tour of the old hospital.


Brent Larson, a maintenance technician, pointed to stacks of chairs, more than 100 in all, each weighing more than 100 pounds so they couldn’t be lifted by psychiatric patients. “We have to get them all out of here before they do the asbestos removal,” the first phase of demolition, he said. “They get kind of heavy after a while.”

Prairie St. John’s began as a children’s psychiatric hospital occupying the fifth floor, with other parts of the 154,000-square-foot building rented or unoccupied. In time, it expanded into a 110-bed hospital serving children, adolescents and adults with psychiatric and addiction treatment.

The lead-lined walls of a fifth-floor meeting room hinted at the location’s original use as an X-ray room, an example of how rooms were repurposed over the hospital's long life.

Early automobiles drive past a five-story brick building.
St. John's Hospital in 1926.
Contributed / Prairie St. John's

During remodeling of operating suites, workers removed an old X-ray viewing box and discovered a stained glass window, a feature of the original hospital, said Randy Cook, vice president of operations.

The craftsmanship and attention to detail in the oldest parts of the hospital are striking. “The work they did was very impressive,” Cook said. “The details, the trim and everything was really spectacular.”

One of Frovarp’s other offices on the second floor had earlier been used for orthopedic surgery, one of St. John’s Hospital’s leading specialties.

During its time as St. John’s Hospital, the building once was known for its birthing units. More than 51,000 children were born in the hospital over the years before it became a psychiatric hospital.

A man in a hooded sweatshirt stands in a basement room full of pipes.
Josh Sayler, director of business development at Prairie St. John's, stands in a basement mechanical room where leaky pipes have long plagued the maintenance staff. The old hospital is slated for demolition. Its replacement will save $100,000 a year in utility costs.
David Samson / The Forum

In recent years, the aging heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical systems became an increasing challenge to maintain. Corrosion and deposition of minerals from old pipes was evident in a dank basement mechanical room, where pipes for the air handling system rumbled.


“We’ve got valves here that are totally frozen,” Larson said. Nearby, water dripped on the concrete floor, and sandbags ringed a slow floor drain to prevent spillover when the pipes are periodically flushed.

“Now you can see why we built the new hospital,” Frovarp said, adding the efficient replacement will save $100,000 a year in utility costs. The old hospital, she added, was a “money pit.”

In its early decades as St. John’s Hospital, until protective levees were built in the 1960s, flooding from the nearby Red River was a periodic problem. More recently, when a flash flood around 2000 dumped 7 inches of rain, water entered a back door and rose to a level of several feet.

In a black and white photo, a person in a canoe rows in the floodwaters in front of a brick building.
Flooding was a threat at St. John's Hospital, near the Red River across from Island Park, until a protective levee was built in the 1960s. This photograph was taken during the spring flood of 1943.
Contributed / North Dakota State University Archives

During the record 2009 flood, Cook was the only employee who remained after an order to evacuate Prairie St. John’s. He stayed behind to turn off the electricity in the event the building flooded.

“It was kind of eerie," he said, recalling that he slept on the third floor in a former birthing unit.

St. John’s Hospital, even though it was one of Fargo’s oldest, was overshadowed by larger rivals, including the former St. Luke’s Hospital, now the Sanford Broadway Medical Center; the former Dakota Hospital, now Sanford South University Medical Center; and later Essentia Health.

“We didn’t get the notoriety that we should have,” Cook said.

Over 100 women dressed all in white line up for a photo.
Student nurses at St. John's Hospital in Fargo in 1940.
Contributed / Prairie St. John's

The sisters were known for the devoted care they gave patients, he said. One stands out in Cook’s memory, a formidable charge nurse named Sister Margaret.


“She was a great nurse,” he said. “You didn’t want to cross her line, either.”

* * *

St. John’s Hospital opened on April 17, 1900, after Bishop John Shanley invited Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Minneapolis to establish a hospital in Fargo, then a city of 9,589.

The hospital first occupied the former bishop’s house but quickly outgrew the 24-bed capacity. In November 1904, a new 87-bed hospital was built. The sisters soon built a training school for nurses, and a nurses’ residence was added south of the hospital in 1906.

A large house in black and white.
St. John's Hospital opened April 17, 1900. The population in Fargo-Moorhead was less than 10,000, and the hospital could only provide for 24 patients.
Courtesy of Prairie St. John's

In the 1960s, doctors at Dakota Clinic, who practiced at St. John’s, wanted the sisters to invest in new medical technology, but the sisters were reluctant to do so, according to Forum archives. Frustrated, the doctors established Dakota Hospital.

After the split, a series of changes befell the aging St. John’s. In 1986, the Franciscan Sisters bought the hospital. Two years later, St. Ansgar Hospital in Moorhead, whose building now is occupied by Clay County Social Services, merged with St. John’s.

After the consolidation, the hospital became Heartland Medical Center. In 1994, another merger happened, uniting Heartland Medical Center and Dakota Hospital to form Dakota Heartland Hospital.

Another change came the next year, when Champion Healthcare, later called Paracelsus, merged with Dakota Heartland in a 50-50 partnership. Paracelsus later bought the remaining half.


In 1996, Prairie St. John’s was founded, and the hospital’s mission turned to psychiatric and addiction treatment. Dakota Heartland ceased to exist around 1998.

Prairie St. John’s became a subsidiary of Universal Health Services , based in Pennsylvania, in 2010.

A large brick building in a black and white photo.
St. John's Hospital as shown in 1921. The hospital with 24 beds opened in the former bishop's residence in 1900, and a brick building with space for 87 beds was built a few years later.
Contributed / North Dakota State University Archives

* * *

The dismantling of the old Prairie St. John’s hospital will begin this summer with the removal of asbestos.

The main demolition will take place later, likely in the fall, bringing 123 years of history to an end.

“We’ll do something to mark the occasion,” said Josh Sayler, Prairie St. John’s director of business development.

Larson, who started working at St. John’s Hospital in 1987, will miss the old building. “My first kid was born in that building,” he said.


Despite the sentimental attachment to the old building, there’s no question the replacement, designed to provide psychiatric care, is a marked improvement, Frovarp said.

“Patient care, 100% better,” she said.

As a memento, Cook, who started working at St. John’s in 1983, might save a brick when the building is torn down. Some people with connections to the building have asked for a brick as a keepsake.

“We’ll try to accommodate that as much as possible,” Sayler said.

Once reduced to a pile of rubble, the brick and mortar will be pulverized to form material for the base of a new parking lot — so in a sense, the old St. John’s Hospital will remain.

Prairie St. John’s psychiatric hospital, seen in 2017, at 510 4th St. S. in Fargo. Forum file photo

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address:
Phone: 701-367-5294
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