That Place is Haunted: Ghost Tourism at TB Sanatoria

Ghost tours are all the rage this time of year. As an avid fan of these nocturnal activities, I’ve went on ghost tours in several cities, including Charleston, Savannah, Nashville, and Chattanooga. Some brought out the skeptic in me while others thoroughly captured my attention. The typical walking tour allows visitors to explore new areas by foot, but some ghost tour companies add a twist by incorporating macabre or nostalgic transportation such as hearses and trolleys.

What exactly does ghost tours have to do with tubercular architecture? Given the booming ghost tourism market, enterprising owners have transformed prisons, mental asylums, and yes, even tubercular sanatoria into morbid tourist destinations. A previous post of mine featured on the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation’s Southern Rambles blog highlighted this growing industry.

Waverly Hills Sanatorium, located in Louisville, Kentucky, is perhaps the best known example of a former TB hospital opening its doors to the public for ghost tourism. Featured on a range of paranormal investigation shows and touted to be one of the most haunted places in America, the original two-story frame building known as Waverly Hills opened its doors as a TB hospital in 1910. A more substantial Gothic style sanatorium replaced the original building in 1926 and increased the patient capacity from 40-50 to 400 (according to the site’s history page). In 1961, Waverly Hills closed as a sanatorium and reopened a year later as a geriatric facility called WoodHaven Medical Services. WoodHaven occupied the space until 1981. After a string of owners, the former sanatorium was purchased by the Mattingly family in 2001. Today it functions as a tourist attraction with paranormal and historical tours as well as paranormal overnight investigations offered from March through August each year. A haunted house in October capitalizes on the market for ghost tourism and attracts a large number of attendees.

The website for Waverly Hills

The website for Waverly Hills

As one of the few TB sanatoria open to the public, Waverly Hills promotes itself largely as a haunted place rather than historic site. The website for Waverly Hills goes as far as to claim it’s “the most haunted place on Earth.” Ghost tours appeal to a wide range of folks who might never go on a historic tour; yet, there are inherent problems that come with relying too heavily upon the paranormal aspects of a former health facility. In order to weave ghostly tours, owners may sacrifice historical facts and research in favor of urban legend and local myth. Then there’s the issue of sensitivity toward the patients who suffered from tuberculosis and died in those spaces. While it may be easier for sites to cash in on macabre aspects of death, a more sensitive interpretation would highlight the consumptive patient experience and the TB treatment process within its contemporary medical context. Finally, some sites may purposely ignore preservation issues to maintain a more abandoned decrepit ambiance. The struggle to balance ghost tales with history is particularly pertinent to the historic preservation of tubercular sanatoria.

TB sanatoria occupy a conflicted place in American history. During the heyday of private sanatoria, it was believed that tuberculosis infected the actual physical fabric of houses. For that very reason, concerned residents often protested the construction of sanatoria in their communities despite the potential revenue it could bring to town. To erase the threat of disease, some communities burned down former tubercular boardinghouses to make way for new builds. As a TB sanatoria architectural historian and historic preservationist, I find the historic razing of TB sanatoria as well as their successful adaptive reuse in some cases to be fascinating. Razing erased many sanatoria from the built environment while adaptive reuse oftentimes sanitized the building’s tubercular past in order to deem these spaces safe for use. TB sanatoria and the early 20th century public health campaign to eradicate tuberculosis have largely been forgotten. PBS recently aired an American Experience special entitled The Forgotten Plague (available for online streaming) that touches on this little known chapter in American history.

While my work researching the history of Kentucky’s TB hospitals will culminate in a National Register MPS, I don’t foresee the hospitals opening for ghost tourism. A more sustainable and likely alternative would be the eventual development of a driving tour connecting the various TB historic sites and the erection of wayside interpretive signage documenting the tubercular past. Given the popularity of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail and Quilt Trails, it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that a TB Sanatoria Trail might one day happen.

The District Five TB Hospital of London, KY

"T.B. Hospital, London, Ky." Postcard

“T.B. Hospital, London, Ky.” Postcard

Although I originally intended to visit the former London TB hospital after my conference in Richmond, rain delayed my trip. This past Thursday I finally got the chance to drive the 100 miles to London, Kentucky to photograph the hospital.

In the 1945 Report on Sites for the Tuberculosis Sanatoria Commission of Kentucky, architect Fred J. Hartstern investigated eight potential sites for the District 5 TB hospital. Of those sites, London was recommended as the best location for the new hospital. While London’s water supply was deemed “doubtful,” Hartstern noted that the local utilities company “agreed to increase the storage and provide chlorination if the sanatorium is located at London.” The original London site consisted of “22 acres at the junction of Highway 25 and 80 and one mile from London.” Located on the side of a substantial hill, the selected site was covered in woods.

1945 Report on Sites for the Tuberculosis Sanatoria Commission of Kentucky

1945 Report on Sites for the Tuberculosis Sanatoria Commission of Kentucky

Governor Simeon Willis placed the cornerstone at London on July 19, 1946. The London TB Hospital admitted its first patients on January 31, 1951, and it reached a capacity of 100 patients by May 1951. Applicants from District Four were also temporarily housed at the London TB Hospital and then transferred to the newly opened Ashland facility. Adverse weather delayed the formal dedication ceremonies, making London “the first of the new district hospitals to hold its dedication after admission of patients” (1950-1951 Annual Report of the State Tuberculosis Hospital Commission, 101).

Two years later, London TB Hospital’s maintenance department had made considerable improvements on the grounds of the facility. They expanded the lawn, planted fifteen red maple and gum trees, and constructed a storage space under the coal bin to function as a garage for the hospital truck (1952-1953 Annual Report of the State Tuberculosis Hospital Commission, 20).

The former London TB hospital building still sits on a well-maintained hilltop. The main hospital building is all that remains of the complex. Located adjacent to the state police office, the building has been repurposed as a state government office facility like its Madisonville counterpart. Nearly identical to Madisonville’s TB Hospital, the London building is in good condition.

This 2015 Google aerial view shows the London TB Hospital.

This 2015 Google aerial view shows the London TB Hospital.

On the day I visited, I talked with the building superintendent and got approval to photograph the building for my project. On learning that the building used to be a TB hospital, two employees returning from lunch joked that they hadn’t gotten TB yet. This discussion actually concerns a particular research interest of mine: how the stigma of tuberculosis attached to sanatoria impacts former consumptive spaces and what that means for heritage tourism, interpretation, and adaptive reuse.

London TB Hospital stands as a testament to the not so long ago period in healthcare when tuberculosis treatment institutionalized and public TB hospitals replaced private TB sanatoria. Although the building is an example of successful adaptive reuse, there are no wayside markers outside interpreting or commemorating its role as a TB hospital. The presence of a Cross of Lorraine (the symbol for the global fight against TB) flanking each side of the main entrance is the only exterior sign that it once served as a TB treatment facility.

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

London TB Hospital, October 8, 2015

From Tubercular Cure Porch to Cure-All: Sleeping Porches in the Early 20th Century

Fall signals the start of conference season each academic year. This past Friday I had the privilege to present at the 2015 Ohio Valley History Conference held on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY. As part of a panel entitled “Transient Housing of the South: Boardinghouses, Hotels, and Residence Halls”, I presented my research on sleeping porches in Asheville’s boardinghouses in the early 1900s.

“Transient Housing of the South” Panel, OVHC Conference, October 2, 2015

Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Old Kentucky Home Boardinghouse, Sleeping Porch and Sun Parlor. Photo courtesy of author.

Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Old Kentucky Home Boardinghouse, Sleeping Porch and Sun Parlor. Photo courtesy of author.

My fascination with sleeping porches started during an internship at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, a boardinghouse in Asheville, North Carolina and the setting of Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. While I’m sure I encountered sleeping porches before then, the three sleeping porches at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial secured my architectural interest.

Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Old Kentucky Home Boardinghouse, Sleeping Porch Interior. Photo courtesy of author.

Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Old Kentucky Home Boardinghouse, Sleeping Porch Interior. Photo courtesy of author.

Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Old Kentucky Home Boardinghouse, Sleeping Porch Interior. Photo courtesy of author.

Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Old Kentucky Home Boardinghouse, Sleeping Porch Interior. Photo courtesy of author.

This past semester I had the opportunity to research sleeping porches for a material culture class. Browsing through old mail-order catalogs, I discovered advertisements for sleeping porch additions and a world of anti-tuberculosis consumer goods. Designed originally as tubercular cure porches, sleeping porches gradually acquired new meaning as architectural embodiments of the open-air movement and were incorporated into the design of American homes as early as the 1910s. Although the act of sleeping outside seemed like a novel idea for many Americans at the time, it had been a hallmark of the tubercular patient’s experience from decades. Advocating for the curative power of the environment and fresh air, tuberculosis specialists constructed sanatoria with large windows and sleeping porches.

In resort towns with TB sanatoria, enterprising residents tacked cure porches onto their homes to meet the demand of fresh-air seekers. These additions on boardinghouses created a distinctive cure-inspired architectural style seen in places such as Saranac Lake, New York and Asheville, North Carolina. Local craftsmanship ensured vernacular design, but sleeping porches shared common traits. An ideal location on the second or third floor kept patients from the dampness of the ground and benefitted from the perceived higher quality of air. Adjustable awnings, lattice work, and wire screens could be added to the basic framework. While the simplest porches cost $6 to $10, it was noted that “good verandas can be erected by carpenters for from $12.00 to $25.00, and protected, well-finished structures can be built for from $25.00 to $100.00.”[1] Second-floor sleeping porches were often added to existing first-floor verandas.

The 1923 House and Home, A Manual and Textbook of Practical House Planning commented on the inclusion of a sleeping porch:

The sleeping porch, which affords the benefits of sleeping in good, fresh air, and the comfort of a warm room to dress in, is in use in many parts of the country. Where the winters are severe, or where winds are high, sleeping porches should be enclosed with windows which may be closed on one or all sides as the weather necessitates.

Publications, such as Sleeping and Sitting in the Open Air (1917), emphasized the ease at which homeowners could attach sleeping porches:

“There is hardly a detached house in the small towns or cities of this country which has not some sort of porch that can be adapted to outdoor sleeping…But where privacy and comfort cannot be secured on an ordinary porch and where the various essentials which have been mentioned before are not obtainable, it may be desirable to build a sleeping porch. Almost any upstairs bed room window can be used as an entrance to a sleeping porch which can be attached to the dwelling house and taken down whenever it may be necessary. The expense of building such porches can be kept to a very low figure if it is so desired.”

Katherine Ott, in Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture Since 1870, argues that the popular construction of sleeping porches “points to a relationship to home architecture different from our own”. The decision of homeowners to tack on sleeping porches represented a tangible effort to embrace a hygienic lifestyle. Without the hindrances of zoning laws and building codes, Americans could construct their own therapeutic space.[2] While Queen Anne style houses of the Victorian era had embraced eclectic designs, early twentieth-century construction companies accepted the need to blend sleeping porches into the overall architectural design of houses. For example, the Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan advertised that “any colors of paints can be furnished for outside body and trim to correspond with balance of house”.[3]

The sleeping porch craze swept across the United States. For many Americans, building their own sleeping porch onto their existing home seemed a necessity. A 1917 article, “The Sleeping Porch Problem,” appeared in the popular magazine House Beautiful. Discussing the challenges of adding sleeping porches to new designs and existing houses, it noted:

“When one builds a country or suburban home of his own, the manner of present-day living makes him demand sleeping-porches as among the essentials of health and comfort. Nor will anyone deny their desirability in summer at least, whatever his views on year-round outdoor sleeping. Thus the owner, whose house was erected five or ten years ago, eventually discusses sleeping-porches with his architect, or oftener with his carpenter, either to save expense, or because he considers the matter too insignificant for an architect to undertake.”[4]

Inventors patented their own design ideas for fresh-air consumption, ranging from indoor bed tents with detailed window treatments to entire sleeping porches. Through public health pamphlets, model designs for sleeping porches were dispersed for personal use. In 1909, the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis published Some Plans and Suggestions for Housing Consumptives. In addition to plans for sanatoria and other housing types, the publication included an entire section on sleeping porches. Aimed at maximizing fresh air exposure and protecting families from tubercular patients, the sleeping porches illustrated in the guide could all be constructed easily and cheaply by a skilled carpenter.

blog1

Even companies devoted specifically to building houses found a way to capitalize on the market for sleeping porches. In the early 1900s, the Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan developed and sold plans, specifications, and materials for houses. The Aladdin “Built in a Day” House Catalog, 1917 advertised two types of sleeping porch additions:

“To meet the popular demand for sleeping porches and sun rooms, arranged for screening in summer and sash in winter, we are offering in Additions Nos. 5 and 6 two very convenient and practical designs which have found especial favor with our customers.”[5]

blogsss

Seemingly stigmatized as contaminated consumptive spaces, the sleeping porch lost enough of its cure porch association to become an element of mainstream American architecture. The popularization of mail-order sleeping porches demonstrated the widespread demand for sleeping porches. While these porches were likely to be tacked on to boardinghouses near sanatoria to maximize profit, most American homeowners attempted to blend the porch into their existing architectural scheme. The heyday of the sleeping porch faded with the advent of air conditioning and the effective drug treatment of tuberculosis. Yet, the sleeping porches dotting the American landscape hint at a period in American culture where climate, medical knowledge, and health-inspired architecture converged.



[1] The National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, Some Plans and Suggestions for Housing Consumptives, 1909, 84.

[2] Katherine Ott, Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture Since 1870 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 91.

[3] The Aladdin Company, Aladdin “Built In A Day” House Catalog, 1917 (New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1995), 108.

[4] As cited in Thomas Durant Visser, Porches of North America (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2012), 67 – 68.

[5] The Aladdin Company, 108.