For 130 years, the St. Ignatius Hospital has perched on a hillside overlooking Colfax, Wash. Once-bustling hallways and operating rooms are now empty and deteriorating, but a local couple is hoping to breathe life back into its neglected spaces.
Austin Storm and his wife, Laura, purchased the building in 2021, nearly seven years after being first intrigued by it.
“We were so struck by how beautiful it was, and how unusual it was to have a building that old in this area that wasn’t being used,” Storm said, “I grew up on the East Coast where there’s a lot of old buildings and a much greater population density, so you are used to there being old, cool buildings everywhere that people haven’t figured out what to do with. But out here, it doesn’t get much older than 1893. We were just … honestly, we were moved by it.”
Construction on the building began in April 1893, and it opened in 1894. The hospital was run by the Sisters of Charity (now the Sisters of Providence) and was the only hospital in that part of the Palouse. By 1911, the St. Ignatius School of Nursing was established. Additions were made to the building in 1917 and 1928, and a separate dormitory for nursing students was built in 1936 next to the hospital.
Due to the cost of maintaining and modernizing the building, the Sisters of Charity decided to shutter the hospital in the mid-1960s when a new hospital was built down the road in Pullman. The building served as an assisted living facility until the early 2000s, when the doors were permanently closed. Abandoned and neglected, the building quickly fell into disrepair.
When the Storms became interested in the building, it was owned by a Southern California resident.
“He was viewing it merely as an investment opportunity and I think didn’t have a full understanding of how daunting a project like this is, especially in a rural town where there’s not a lot of clear demand for redevelopment or new development,” Storm said. “You have to be passionate about redevelopment but also about where you are.”
That where, of course, is Colfax, the county seat of Whitman County, smack dab in the middle of wheat country. The Storms, who met in Moscow, Idaho, own several businesses in the region, including Bully For You in Colfax and the Storm Cellar in Moscow. When he first came to the Palouse, Storm, like so many, viewed Colfax as more of a place to get through rather than a place to stop. That seems to be changing. Storm noted that although the population of the town is about 2,800, the daily car traffic is much higher.
“If you are going to Pullman, Washington State University, from the west side or Spokane, you have to go through Colfax, which means there is a much greater potential for an audience. We’ve always thought about what would serve our local audience, but also, what makes sense in this place that really is kind of a crossroads and a place where different types of people overlap,” he explained. “I think there’s a growing appreciation for what Colfax has to offer in its downtown, the really beautiful buildings, the incredible people.”
Once the Storms had ownership of St. Ignatius, the real work began. Their first goal was to stabilize the building so it didn’t continue deteriorating, and that meant tackling the “massive” hole in the roof. For at least 20 years, water had trickled into the building, causing substantial damage to all four floors directly beneath the hole. After putting a temporary patch on the roof, the Storms took part of the first floor “down to dirt,” and hired a company out of the Tri-Cities to jack up the buckling parts of the building, beginning with the first floor. Many of the structural beams were so rotted, they collapsed as pressure was applied to them, but it worked. As each floor was raised, the Storms were able to rebuild the structure as necessary to support the floor above.
“There was a real risk that four stories of the inside of the building would collapse once we started pushing on it,” Storm said. “It was, honestly, a pretty fun experience, something you don’t do very often. Something I appreciate about living in an area like the Palouse is there is a really adventurous spirit, and it’s been amazing to work with contractors in this area because no one is daunted. I think about the things people used to do at the turn of the last century, moving houses, building these insane buildings. I think that spirit is very much alive, and we’ve seen that in the people that have helped us.”
In late 2022, repairs on the roof were completed. At that point, the Storms were able to breathe a sign of relief, knowing that regardless of whatever else happens, the building was stabilized.
Another major task has been cleaning out debris. Although anything of value was sold long ago, the building was still full of stuff deemed to be of no worth, such as “really gross refrigerators.” Storm said they’ve been doing a lot of recycling and “peeling things back that don’t contribute to the historic framework of the building,” which helps the couple see what has merit and needs to be preserved.
“No matter what happens to the building, it’s an incredible historic building, and telling the story of that building is telling the story of the people settling in the Palouse. We really want to preserve the history of the building through reflecting some uses it used to have, but also through the architectural details,” he said.
There isn’t much in the historical record of how the interior of the building might have looked, and thanks to various remodels, there’s very little of the original 1893 interior left. The outside is a slightly different story.
“On the outside, you can see (original features) in the more ornate shape of the windows and door casings and things of that nature. Then it got remodeled, a new wing was added in 1928, so there’s kind of this institutional art deco detail as well,” Storm said. “There is enough there for me to nerd out on for a long, long time.”
Although they are a long way from the finish line, the Storms have started thinking about how they’d like to use the building, from a space for artists to an event center with rentable rooms or even possibly a brewery or distillery in the original boiler house across the street from the hospital.
“One of the greatest things about doing something like this in a town like Colfax is it is too big for one single use. Colfax does not need that much of any one thing, and that really fits our own interest. We are also not interested in just one thing. There’s a lot of space to dream and room for a lot of different compatible visions,” Storm explained.
The community has also gotten into the spirit of reviving the building. Storm said he meets people all the time who were born in the hospital and are glad it’s being preserved.
Of course, renovating a building like St. Ignatius isn’t cheap. The Storms are partially supported by the Whitman County Historical Society, which accepts donations that can be earmarked for the project. Funding also comes from a more unearthly source. For several years before the Storms purchased the building, local volunteers have conducted ghost tours in the hospital as a way to draw attention to it and the need to preserve it.
“This has allowed some community-minded people in Colfax and the Palouse area to encourage us early on, because the initial stages (of renovation) aren’t very glamorous,” Storm said. “It’s really hard to fundraise for something you aren’t going to see anything on the outside of it. Our minimum pitch was we at least wanted to preserve the building so even if we aren’t the people who get to figure what else we can do with this, someone in the future can, because if it goes away, there’s no going back.”