In the mid-1960s, Chelsea architect Art Lindauer hiked into a mosquito-laden woods south of downtown Chelsea. He was sent there by Dr. Michael Papo, a local physician who had outgrown the Chelsea storefront he shared with three other doctors. Papo wanted to build a new medical clinic and saw promise in the wooded peat marsh.

“I told him it was undevelopable, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer,” recalls Lindauer, now eighty-eight years old. “So I used my World War II jungle knife to cut back the brush, and we found three acres of solid ground for the first three buildings.”

Those brick buildings became the nucleus of Chelsea Community Hospital. In May of this year, they were torn down to make way for a 130,000-square-foot, $32 million addition funded by the St. Joseph Mercy Health System, which bought the hospital in 2009. Once the addition is finished next year, St. Joe’s will begin a $28 million renovation of the remaining facilities, including a build-out to create a comprehensive cancer center.

Lindauer, the father of Chelsea mayor Jason Lindauer, is amazed that a hospital grew within that hundred-acre oak and sugar maple forest and became the area’s major employer. “I never thought there would be more construction after the first buildings,” Lindauer says. “This is what gives me the greatest satisfaction—knowing that so much came from that first construction.”

When he was recovering from broken ribs at the hospital several years ago, Lindauer says, “I remember looking out the window at the trees and thinking, ‘This is a special place to be.'”

Since the 1960s, nature has been key to the facility’s character, according to Bob Kendall, eighty-eight, of Jackson. Kendall was the construction manager who worked with Lindauer on the first buildings and oversaw two additional construction phases in the 1960s and 1970s. “Dr. Papo would not let anyone cut down a tree,” Kendall says. “Once when we were forced to remove a tree, I loaded it onto a truck and drove it to his home and transplanted it there.”

But “we’re way past that time now,” Kendall admits. About 150 trees will come down to make way for the addition. Still, architects from the Detroit firm Albert Kahn, who designed the expansion, say that maintaining the ambience is a focal point of the design.

“When you drive onto the grounds, it does not feel like a clinical space,” says Stephen White, the Albert Kahn principal who manages the landscape architecture division. “We don’t want to wreck the character; instead we want to preserve and even embellish it.”

The two-story addition will include fifty-four new private patient rooms— making all 113 of the hospital’s rooms private—as well as new rehab and therapy departments, a new emergency room, and new X-ray and imaging areas. Plans for the new entryway and lobby involve fieldstone and brick and feature large windows, groupings of trees, and a garden.

There will be “no ugly, shopping mall–size parking lots,” White says. Instead, parking spaces will be added to the smaller lots already dotted throughout the facility. Natural building materials and mostly indigenous plants and trees will be used, and exterior colors will blend into the existing structures.

Just as the wooded setting inspires the latest architects, White also wants it to inspire patients and visitors. “There’s a great body of research that shows the health benefits of interaction with nature, so we will use any opportunity we have to connect with nature in the new facility,” he explains. The hospital courtyard will include an extensive “healing garden” attached to the rehab center, with walkways connecting to other hospital buildings. “Because many of our patients are ambulatory, they will not only be able to look out, but get out,” says hospital president and CEO Kathleen Griffiths.

The second phase of Papo’s project, a one-story skilled-nursing facility with 113 beds, was built in the late 1960s. Kendall says the building looks

a lot like a motel because it was planned as one in a national chain of “Medi-Centers” that would provide extended patient care. When the national company backed out, there were thoughts about using the building as an independent nursing home. Then Papo pushed to start a hospital there instead.

CCH opened as a private hospital in 1970, converting to a nonprofit two years later. In the early 1970s, Kendall oversaw the third construction phase, an outpatient surgery clinic—only the second of its kind in the United States—that was connected to the main hospital.

Papo was “the driving force” behind the additions, Kendall says; although as a physician he couldn’t legally serve as president of the hospital, he practiced there until he retired in the late 1970s (see sidebar).

Will Johnson was the hospital’s president and CEO from 1975 to 1998. “I think everyone worries about change,” he says of the recent merger and expansion. “But the most important thing is this hospital will continue to provide a seamless delivery system. We’ve had a long-lasting relationship with St. Joe’s and this continuity of care will continue.

“Even more than the woods—which makes it unique—it’s the quality of care that matters most.”

Sidebar: Dr. Papo’s Vision

“I still marvel in my old age and wonder, ‘How did we do this?’ ” says Dr. Michael Papo, the driving force in the founding of Chelsea Community Hospital. Papo, eighty-five, spoke by phone from his home in Palm Beach, Florida, where he lives with his wife, Judy.

“We strongly advocated using family practice physicians and preventive care—and this was ahead of its time forty years ago,” Papo says of the doctors who helped him found what began as a private clinic. “Today our concept is more important than ever.”

Born in Sarajevo in what was then Yugoslavia, Papo is a Holocaust survivor whose mother died in Auschwitz. Imprisoned in Albanian and Italian concentration camps in the early 1940s, he was rescued—”whisked away”—by an Italian couple who hid him in their home for eight months.

“There’s no doubt that my quest for survival played a big part in how I solved problems,” says Papo, who came to the United States in 1951 with his father. He’d already gone to medical school in Italy, but had to re-enroll at U-M. He started his medical practice in Chelsea and continued until 1978, when it was donated to the U-M (the hospital is still home to a U-M family practice center). Papo has a son, Rene, a local real estate developer, and a daughter, Michelle, a physician in Dallas.

Papo says he’s thrilled that the hospital is growing. His advice to this generation of leaders: “Continue to provide personal, compassionate care at a reasonable cost.

“Our little hospital was a microcosm of a huge medical clinic,” Papo says.

“You could take this health-care model to the ghetto, to the desert, or anywhere, and it could be a success.”

Indeed, it seems to be working well in a hundred-acre forest.