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.
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.