By Kim Kowsky
When Santa Monica Hospital dedicated its new north wing in 1954, 11-year-old Bill Hromadka was there with his family in tribute to his late grandfather, August B. Hromadka, who had co-founded the hospital with William S. Mortensen in 1926.
In September 2011, Hromadka, now a handsome, white-haired 69-year-old grandfather himself, sat in virtually the same spot with his son and 10-year-old grandson, August, to watch the unveiling of UCLA's newest hospital building- which replaces the one he saw dedicated 57 years ago.
"It was pretty neat," says Hromadka, a retired investment manager and former hospital board member who lives in Santa Barbara. "I felt proud of my heritage and that I could share it with my son and grandson, who is the namesake of his great-great-grandfather."
The stately red-brick building on Wilshire Boulevard between 16th and 15th streets serves as the primary entry point for UCLA Health System's seven-acre hospital campus in Santa Monica. With a design inspired by the Northern Italianate architecture of UCLA's original buildings in Westwood, the new 266-bed hospital and academic medical center combines Old World charm with the latest technology that is both energy-efficient and earthquake-resistant.The presence of three generations of Hromadkas, as well as some 450 other Santa Monica civic leaders and hospital dignitaries, at the dedication is a tribute to the pride city residents take in the hospital and the important role it has played in helping to shape the community.
"This is a closely knit community with many citizens involved in making Santa Monica a better place," says Louise Gabriel, president, CEO and founder of the Santa Monica History Museum. "The community takes a lot of pride in the hospital for the excellent care that it gives and because of its legacy of helping those in need."
Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom agrees. The hospital has "a storied place in the history of the city," he says. "Santa Monica has always prided itself as being on the leading edge of change in our environmental programs, our social-service network and so on. To have a healthcare facility that mirrors that same commitment to excellence and cutting-edge technology is a perfect fit."
Calvin Coolidge was president, Prohibition was the law and Swing was the new sound when two Viennese-trained doctors who made house calls by horse and buggy decided they wanted a modern hospital in their own community.
Close friends and colleagues, August B. Hromadka, M.D., and William S. Mortensen, M.D., were convinced that their sleepy seaside resort town of Santa Monica would soon attract a population boom. They secured a piece of property at 16th Street and Arizona Avenue and tried to drum up financial support for their project from the city council and fellow doctors.
But neither group was willing to share the risks. So, Drs. Hromadka and Mortensen decided they would do it on their own. The two took out mortgages on their homes and other personal loans to raise the $200,000 needed to cover the costs of the land and construction.
When Santa Monica Hospital opened its doors to patients, after a year of construction, on July 26, 1926, the local newspaper, The Outlook, hailed the three-story, 60-bed hospital as a "remarkable and modern feat of workmanship."
Indeed, just as the newly refurbished UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica is on the leading edge of modern medicine today, the original Santa Monica Hospital of 85 years ago boasted its own technological surprises.
The hospital was considered especially "up to the minute" for having radio connections in every room at a time when the first major network radio broadcast was still several months away. There also were utility plugs, reading lamps and hot-and-cold running water. An Otis elevator spacious enough to accommodate beds carried patients and nurses to the roof to enjoy "the healing rays of the sun" and views of Catalina Island.
The hospital was also impressive for including what was then a state-of-the-art X-ray lab, a large surgical suite with an observation area so visitors could view operations and a range of hydrotherapy and light therapies that were used to treat everything from pneumonia to surgical shock, according to a history published in 1987 by Dr. Mortensen's grandson Thomas Soren Mitchell, M.D., who was born at the hospital and practiced medicine there. Daily room rates for most services were $4 for four-bed wards and $6 for private rooms; obstetrical patients paid a total fee of $65, which included a private room for a 10-day stay (standard at the time), the use of the delivery room, anesthesia, lab work and the nursery, Dr. Mitchell notes.
Santa Monica Hospital was immediately successful, and Drs. Hromadka and Mortensen began constructing a south wing to double its capacity. The new wing, completed in 1928, included a $25-a-day penthouse suite used by such Hollywood notables as Charlie Chaplin's wife, the stage-and-film actress Paulette Goddard.
After the Depression hit in 1929, the hospital suffered financially because so many cash-strapped patients were unable to afford hospital services. Dr. Mortensen asked his business manager to leave some extra lights on at night so he wouldn't have to see all those dark rooms, which "keep me from sleeping nights," his grandson writes.
That same year, despite, or perhaps because of, his worries about the hospital's future, Dr. Mortensen also launched First Federal Bank of Santa Monica, a public company that he quickly converted into a mutual savings and loan.
"He was uncommon in that he was both an outstanding surgeon and an outstanding businessman," says another of Dr. Mortensen's grandsons, Bill Mortensen III, 79, who served as the financial institution's chief executive officer from 1961 until his retirement in 1997.
Thanks to Dr. Mortensen's business acumen, Santa Monica Hospital survived the downturn and won community support for bond financing to help pay for a north wing in 1937. The $225,000 expansion added yet more beds and a modern radiation unit that included the Coolidge X-ray tube, a stable high-energy innovation that set the stage for modern radiation therapy.
The new wing also included at least 16 "memorial" rooms paid for by a benevolent fund the doctors established to serve people who couldn't afford hospital care, according to Medicine in Santa Monica, a 1968 tome by Santa Monica physician Wilfred Snodgrass, M.D.
Bill Mortensen, who has two portraits of his grandfather hanging on the walls of his English cottage-style home in Pacific Palisades, describes his grandfather's generosity as legendary. When his housekeeper mentioned that she and others were trying to raise money to build a church, Dr. Mortensen not only gave them the biggest donation they received, but also co-signed the loan that allowed them to build Calvary Baptist Church, which bills itself as the "first black church in Santa Monica."
"That was one of the biggest symbols of his greatness," Bill Mortensen says. "Black people were being treated unfairly in that era. I thought it was great that he extended himself in that way."
Bill Mortensen spent summers working at the hospital as a dishwasher earning 50 cents an hour and then as an orderly earning 75 cents an hour. He recalls growing up thinking that his grandfather, who always dressed formally for dinner, was extraordinarily wealthy.
"One day, I asked my grandfather if he was a millionaire," he says. "He said, 'No, I'm not, but I could have been. I enjoyed giving away money more than I did just adding it up.'"
By the late 1930s, the hospital was a family affair. Dr. Hromadka's son, John, and Dr. Mortensen's sons, Elmer and Bill II, as well as a son-in-law, Cyril Mitchell, all became physicians and worked at the hospital. Another of Dr. Hromadka's sons, Ralph, was hospital administrator. Other family members worked as purchasing agents, nurses, orderlies, aides and kitchen help.
After Dr. Hromadka died in 1939 and the Catholic diocese opened St. John's Hospital nearby in 1942, Dr. Mortensen decided it was time to get out of the hospital business. "He felt he was getting too old to run it and thought the competition was going to be substantial," Bill Mortensen says. "He didn't see how a small city like Santa Monica could handle two hospitals."
Rather than merging Santa Monica Hospital with St. John's, Dr. Mortensen and Dr. Hromadka's widow opted to give the facility to the Lutheran Hospital Society. In making the deal, they insisted on two provisions: that their children and grandchildren could receive cost-free treatment at the hospital and that any profit generated by the hospital would go toward the care of the medically indigent.
"He made nothing on the transfer, because he didn't believe a person should profit off other people's illnesses," Bill Mortensen says. His grandfather remained active at the hospital until his death in 1955.
Under Lutheran Hospital Society's stewardship, Santa Monica Hospital underwent more growth, including the unveiling witnessed by Bill Hromadka of the new north wing in 1954 and the dedication of the Nethercutt Emergency Center in 1969, which was named for J.B. Nethercutt, who with his aunt co-founded Merle Norman Cosmetics and was a champion of the new center. The new emergency center provided 24-hour emergency services to the Westside and became Santa Monica's first paramedic base station.
In 1974, the hospital opened the Rape Treatment Center, which would become an internationally renowned model for the treatment of sexual-assault victims. Ten years later, Nethercutt and Merle Norman Cosmetics stepped up again, donating $5 million toward construction of the Merle Norman Pavilion, which was built as part of a $40-million modernization program. The pavilion was completed in 1988.
Dr. Walid Ghurabi began working at the Santa Monica hospital in 1980, and he became friends with the emergency center's namesake, J.B. Nethercutt, who by then was chairman of Merle Norman Cosmetics.
Nethercutt, who had amassed one of world's finest automobile collections, sometimes allowed Dr. Ghurabi, medical director of the emergency center, to drive one of his vintage cars and enjoyed talking about the early days of the cosmetics business. "J.B. often told me stories about how he used to ride his bicycle to deliver his Aunt Merle's face creams to her customers," Dr. Ghurabi recalls. "He was a good and generous man."
Nethercutt died in 2004 and did not live to see the opening of the modernized J.B. Nethercutt Emergency Center in 2007. "I felt his absence very keenly," Dr. Ghurabi says, recalling, "I cried when I got up to speak" at the dedication.
In 1994, the then-named Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center sustained significant damage in the Northridge earthquake, forcing the closure of its Tower building for nine months. The following year, the hospital was sold to The University of California Regents, who drew plans for a major reconstruction project that finally will end when the Tower is demolished to make way for landscaped gardens.
After the renamed Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center officially merged with Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital in 2005, the downtown hospital's inpatient and outpatient surgeries were moved to Santa Monica, and the facility was rechristened Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital.
Remarkably, the hospital has remained open throughout the 16-year reconstruction project, which involved the work of more than 15 design, engineering and construction firms and included more than 60,000 square feet of renovation, 330,000 square feet of new construction and the installation of three parks. With sometimes just two sheets of drywall and a metal stud separating major construction from a working operating room or a patient bed, the project has been called "the most complex hospital building project in the state," says Posie Carpenter, chief administrative officer at the Santa Monica campus, "because it was constructed while we continued to operate our existing hospital."
Gazing up at the handsome end product of all that planning and engineering, Bill Hromadka can only shake his head in awe.
"I don't think in their wildest dreams my grandfather and Dr. Mortensen would have imagined their hospital growing into a modern campus like this," he says. "I think it's just fabulous."
Santa Monica is home to freelance writer Kim Kowsky.