ON THIS DAY: May 2, 2009, UPMC Children’s Hospital opens in Lawrenceville

PITTSBURGH — University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh officially opened its new campus in Lawrenceville after three years of construction and renovations at the former St. Francis Hospital on May 2, 2009. The $625 million cost was more than the combined construction costs of PNC Park and Heinz Field.

Opened on June 5, 1890 as a 15-bed facility in Oakland, Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital quickly filled to capacity and found itself generously supported by the community as it expanded. After a large fire destroyed part of its campus on the western edge of Oakland in 1923, the recently renamed Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh constructed a new building in central Oakland.

When Children’s moved into the new structure on Nov. 1, 1926, it became the first hospital on the University of Pittsburgh campus. As the Medical Center grew, Children’s reputation for specialized care earned it high praise and respect in the medical community, particularly after the breakthrough development of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.

Decades of additions and renovations pushed the hospital’s capacity over 250-beds by 1957, as pediatric surgery became another specialty. The needs of surgical patients for intensive care temporarily diminished the hospital’s total capacity, but yet another massive construction project expanded the hospital again.

The Main Tower opened in January 1986, adding new patient rooms, a heliport and more specialized departments that combined to facilitate the hospital becoming the world’s leader in transplant surgery and the world’s largest pediatric transplant center under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Starzl.

Other parts of UPMC Medical Center were also growing and soon Children’s Oakland home was hemmed in on all sides with cramped and aging buildings. In 2001, Children’s and UPMC Health System officially announced that they would merge to create a new hospital. Highmark (in concert with other health insurers) sued to stop the merger, but eventually relented.

Initially, UPMC and Children’s planned to build a new pediatric hospital next to UPMC Montefiore Hospital that would become the centerpiece of a new UPMC campus. Those plans changed when St. Francis Medical Center in Lawrenceville announced its intention to close.

UPMC and Children’s made a deal with Highmark to acquire and renovate St. Francis, using grants and loans from Highmark that were estimated to be worth $230 million, to resolve ongoing disputes about access to care and rates. The 10-acre site recycled some portions of the former hospital, linking those with new construction and a new, larger parking garage. Budgetary priorities were much debated between Children’s officials and UPMC, with the former determined to make a world-class facility and the latter concerned about cost overruns.

Transferring patients to the new Children’s was a daunting challenge that took dozens of ambulances and an entire day to complete. About 150 patients were transported in three-minute intervals in a coordinated effort. The 10 minute drive between the hospitals was accomplished using convoys of 34 ambulances in total. Once situated, patients and their families found rooms that were 1.5 times larger than the old building and featuring accommodations for parents and caregivers in the room.

After the new Children’s opened, UPMC officials were quick to tout the new facilities, with president Jeffrey A. Romoff proudly telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Children’s was “becoming a national and international treasure” that could never have happened without UPMC’s help.

UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh main hospital building towers over the surrounding neighborhood and features bright colors on its facade, topped by helipads leading to a Level I pediatric trauma center. Inpatient and outpatient care is spread over nine floors and includes a large family resource center, 14 operating suites and over 300 patient beds, including 55 in its neonatal intensive care unit, making it the largest in the hospital. A nearby 10-story research facility and conference center joins several smaller buildings to complete the campus, along with an adjoining Ronald McDonald House that was converted from an apartment building.

The old Children’s facility in Oakland was quickly demolished and will be replaced by UPMC Heart and Transplant Hospital at UPMC Presbyterian, which was originally expected to open in 2023 before the pandemic triggered delays.