November 6, 2015

Historic Tuberculosis Sanitariums: Geography and Climate as a Cure

  • By: Anya Grahn

As the American Sanitarium Movement emerged in the early 20th century, designers built upon the success of health tourism to draw patients to seaside, mountaintop, and desert locations. These geographic regions were valued for their curative powers. Many of these first tuberculosis sanitariums have been lost, but some have found new uses that continue to take advantage of their attractive settings. We highlight three below.

Seaview Tuberculosis Hospital

Staten Island, New York

In the early 19th century, Dr. John Coakley Lettsom established the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary for Scrofula in Magnate, England, after observing that fisherman rarely suffered from a certain type of tuberculosis. Doctors had previously prescribed tropical destinations for patients, but the success of this institution showed that fresh air was more significant in treating the disease than climate. As a result, more sanitariums were built along ocean fronts.

The Seaview Hospital on Staten Island, New York, provided respite for those suffering from the New York City’s most deadly disease. Architect Raymond Almirall designed a series of buildings in a fan-shaped arrangement to take advantage of sea views and breezes.

Wards within these buildings featured balconies and sun rooms that theoretically facilitated the curing of patients. In addition to hospital buildings and open-air pavilions, the site contained an administration building, dining hall, and staff housing. These independent structures were designed in the Mission, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau styles, with simple materials and features that promoted sanitation. The hospital opened in 1913 with 1,100 beds and continued to grow into the 1950s.

The success of new drugs in the middle of the 20th century almost completely eradicated tuberculosis in the United States, and within a decade, Seaview transitioned from a tuberculosis hospital to a geriatric and nursing care facility. In time, the original complex was deserted, except for a few small businesses. Today, the site is being rehabilitated as a multipurpose health campus.

Seaview Hospital Exterior

photo by: Wikimedia Commons

The Seaview Hospital, as seen from the ground looking up. It is currently in the process of rehabilitation.

Seaview Interior

photo by: Jonathan Haeber, Flickr

A room inside the Seaview Hospital, with evidence of colorful decor from its former days.

Cragmor Exterior

photo by: Wikimedia Commons

The building that used to serve as the Cragmor Sanitarium is now used as a main hall at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Cragmor Sanitarium

Colorado Springs, Colorado

The success of a German mountaintop tuberculosis sanitarium in 1859 prompted the use of similar locations for those that followed. Many medical practitioners believed that the thin, cold mountain air eased the breathing of patients and increased their heartbeats, promoting blood flow to the lungs. For centuries, European patients flocked to health resorts in the Swiss Alps while the Rocky Mountains became a haven for those suffering in the United States.

In the early 20th century, patients gravitated to Colorado Springs for its mountain lifestyle, fresh air, natural springs, and sanitariums. Of the city’s many facilities, Cragmor emerged as the crown jewel. Former sufferers Dr. Samuel Edwin Sully and famed architect Thomas MacLaren designed a medical facility that would take advantage of natural light, fresh air, and cool mountain breezes. Like many sanitariums of the day, Cragmor was designed to be a self-sufficient community and boasted its own laundry facilities, stables, and greenhouses in addition to typical hospital buildings and staff residences.

Cragmor opened in 1925 and was marketed to the affluent. However, the hospital soon had to reduce its strict regimen of bedrest, prescribed meals, and afternoons “taking the cure” as the wealthy were conditioned to greater social independence. In 1925 the National Tuberculosis Association named the facility the most desirable sanitarium in the world. In 1952, Cragmor transitioned to a rehabilitative facility specializing in medical care and vocational training for members of the Southwest’s Navajo community who suffered from tuberculosis.

In 1964, the University of Colorado purchased and rehabilitated the sanitarium as the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Tucson at dusk

photo by: Cocoabiscuit, Flickr

A view of Tucson, Arizona at dusk, looking towards the Catalina mountains.

Desert Sanitarium

Tucson, Arizona

The dry desert climate, abundant sunshine, and Native American healing practices of the Southwest were also marketed to tuberculosis patients in the East. The effort was so effective, in fact, that by the 1920s, demand necessitated the adoption of strict zoning ordinances in cities such as Tucson, Arizona, to regulate the placement and construction of sanitariums.

In November 1926, the architecture firm of Henry O. Jaastad and Annie Rockfellow designed the Desert sanitarium in the pueblo revival style that attempted to treat tuberculosis through direct solar radiation. It also became the first medical institution in the nation to measure the sun's radiation levels with a radiometer. Similar to other sanitariums, the Desert Sanitarium campus included structures used for treatment, research offices and labs, and staff residences. The Desert Sanitarium closed in 1943.

The Tucson Medical Center opened in its place a year later and has continued its use of the former Desert Sanitarium to this day. In 2012, 12 of the facility's structures were listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination included the Tucson Medical Center's Farness Patio Building and Arizona Building.

By: Anya Grahn

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