MARSHALL — Pat O’Hanlon sleeps in a surgery room. When he wakes up, he goes into a physical therapy room to make breakfast and then goes to work in his office at a nurses’ station.
But O’Hanlon is no doctor or nurse, nor is he in need of one; and this building, with its five floors and cage elevator, is no longer a hospital. O’Hanlon and his wife, Dee Yoh, live in what used to be the John Fitzgibbon Memorial Hospital in Marshall, about halfway to Kansas City.
Now, where for almost 70 years doctors and nurses walked the corridors, O’Hanlon and Yoh are creating a place where artists can display their work. Rooms where a mother held her first child or an old man lost his final round to illness are flooded with sunlight bouncing off paintings, photographs, weaving looms and sculptures.
Instead of life and death, the PahloArt Refinery and Gallery is about creativity and imagination.
“I guess not everyone walks into a place like this and says, ‘This will be awesome,’” O’Hanlon said. “But Dee and I could see a larger vision.”
O’Hanlon, an artist, and Yoh, a professional speaker and life coach, were living in Charlottesville, Va., in 2004 when they realized they could take their professions anywhere in the country. They had settled on a place in Martinsville, Va., to house both a gallery and an office, but in a moment of wondering what else was out there, Yoh did a nationwide search online of available properties.
The old Marshall hospital was the first thing to pop up.
“When we saw this, it changed our plans,” O’Hanlon said. “Instead of thinking of a small gallery for me and an office for my wife, we started seeing the possibility of a community arts center I could be part of, and a healing arts center my wife could help create. We knew if we didn’t fly out and see it so we could get it out of our heads, we would always wonder what might have been.”
Instead of getting it out of their heads, the couple said, they bought it on the spot.
“My father, after he retired, had taken a job doing hospital maintenance so he knows all the things about these buildings,” O’Hanlon said. “I had him come to look, and he said that structurally this thing is like a rock. It does need a lot of upgrades and tender loving care.”
After meeting with the Marshall City Council to get zoning issues for the 50,000-square-foot building settled, O’Hanlon and Yoh spent six months cleaning up material left from the abandoned hospital and carving out a place to live. A cat, Zorro, and a dog, d’Artagnan, live with the couple in their ex-emergency room digs.
“The council was very supporting,” O’Hanlon said. “Their thoughts were ‘What is going to happen to this place if they don’t try something?’ Marshall is so pro-development. They encouraged us at every step.”
The bulk of the building was constructed in 1922 and named for a wealthy Saline County resident, John Fitzgibbon, who willed money for a Marshall hospital. An addition was put on in 1954. The new Fitzgibbon Hospital opened in 1991, and the old building was left alone. Among its challenges when O’Hanlon and Yoh bought it: a leaky roof, peeling paint and cracked floor tiles.
First- and second-floor rooms formerly used for patients now have been “adopted” by one or two artists who pay for a key and can then paint the room and display their work in it. Today, 22 artists work in 15 of the rooms.
Among them is Linda Hoffman, an Arrowrock artist who met the couple at the suggestion of a professor at Missouri Valley College. She has a peach-colored room on the first floor that she fills with her paintings and ceramic pieces.
“It is a wonderful building,” Hoffman said. “My son had a corner room there when he was in grade school when he had pneumonia. It had all of these big windows so there was sunlight and these beautiful trees that are there in the autumn.
“It’s like I already know the building,” she said. “I am so glad it was saved in this way.”
Jane Lavendar, a Columbia photographer, met the couple at the Unity Center of Columbia where Lavendar exhibited some of her work. “(O’Hanlon) asked if I would like to show at his place as well,” she said. “He explained what he was doing at the facility, which is amazing, and it seemed really cool ... I’ve been exhibited twice, so I’ve been up there to see (the exhibits), and I was just really pleased.”
The tiny details of a hospital have not disappeared. Each room still has a number on the door and a light above the frame that would blink for emergencies. Signs still read, “No smoking — Oxygen in use” and “Immediate family only — Inquire at nurses’ station.” Each room still has the sink and space for a closet.
“The building is important to a lot of people in this community,” Yoh said. “It holds a lot of memories, from the sadness of losing a loved one to the joy of the birth of a new child.”
Gertraud Clark, who has worked as a nurse at the old and new Fitzgibbon hospital for 37 years, told the story of a ghost who frequented the old hospital’s third floor. “They were convinced it was John Fitzgibbon himself,” Clark said. “There was water running, doors closing in the middle of the night.”
Fitzgibbon might still be rattling around up there. The third and fourth floors have not yet been redone, and, with a little imagination, it is easy to daydream of white-coated doctors with their clipboards making rounds or a man standing shyly at the door with a bouquet of flowers for the woman inside.
Brandon Gaddy is chairman of Friends of the PahloArt Center, a nonprofit organization created to one day own the building so that it’s eligible for major grants. He said the toll that aging has taken on the building is one more reason to save it.
“Our main goal is to make it a community center and a community outlet for art,” Gaddy said. “We are slowly making our way there ... It is one of those buildings people in the town don’t want to see deteriorate.”
With volunteer help, donations from the community and money from their own pockets, the couple prepared the hospital-turned-gallery for its first exhibit, “Santa Fe Trails,” in August 2005. Marshall has a lot of ties to the 19th century transportation route.
Since then, they’ve had five more exhibits and a children’s summer camp, and they have plans for more in April; because the back part of the building has no heating, plumbing or running water the gallery is not open through the winter months. It will reopen on the first Saturday of April.
O’Hanlon said he and his wife had the dream and got the building. “Now,” he said, “it is just pulling everything in the universe to put it together.” His greater goal is to turn the place into an interactive children’s museum, and he said he already has ideas for children’s activities so the gallery can be a place for them to expand their imagination, he said.
“Our kids have some really scary things ahead of them,” said O’Hanlon, whose children with Yoh are grown. “If we don’t find a way for them to be imaginative now, how are they going to survive when they get older?”
Other plans include a healing arts center, a coffee shop and space for artist receptions and workshops.
One day, O’Hanlon said, “we want the first and second floor to be where you come in your suit and leave in your suit, but the third floor will be the ‘get messy’ floor where you wear your apron.”
For now, the building, with its peeling walls and cracked tiles is still somewhat of a historical marker for Marshall. Its hospital past is gone, but O’Hanlon sees possibilities for the future in every room and hallway.
“We could have stayed in Virginia and done something that would have served us very well,” he said. “But after seeing this building, we thought why not do something that could serve the entire community and have some fun? A lot of these (artists) here don’t get the opportunity to do this.
“We are taking a landmark in the city that eventually would be a hazard,” he said, “and we are turning it into something fun and educational.”