The Significance of the Kentucky State Tuberculosis Hospitals

Listing a set of buildings on the National Register requires reflection on why those places matter. As I work on revisions for my multiple-property submission (MPS) project, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meanings conveyed in the set of five hospitals constructed from 1946 – 1950 in Kentucky. These identical hospitals are a mid-century property type that embodied the Commonwealth’s public health campaign to eradicate tuberculosis. Although Kentucky first formed a tuberculosis commission in 1912, sanatoria largely remained in the hands of local and county organizations for the next three decades. The construction of five 100-bed tuberculosis hospitals in the late 1940s marked a transition from smaller, county-operated sanatoria to larger, modern district hospitals. The significance of these hospitals has already been acknowledged through the individual listing of the Ashland Tuberculosis Hospital on the National Register in 2007.

Annmarie Adams, in Medicine by Design: The Architect and the Modern Hospital, 1893 – 1943, notes that a shift in hospital design from home-like facilities to more professional institutions occurred by the mid-twentieth century. Standardization of hospital design improved cost-efficiency and evaluation of hospital performance (Adams, 120). Given that Kentucky’s state tuberculosis hospitals received government funding, it was also imperative that a comparatively equal level of services be offered to all citizens throughout the six districts. Their design conveyed an image of hospitals as modern antidotes to the white plague. The use of materials further exemplified the power inherent in these sanatoria:

In viewing this link in the State’s system of sanatoria for the treatment of Kentucky’s worst plague, tuberculosis, one is bound to be impressed by the ability of government to do what private citizens would find impossible. A great deal of money has been spent, that is true, but great good can come of it in salvaged lives that previously have been doomed. This money has furthermore been wisely spent from the standpoint of permanency of construction… brick and tile, steel and concrete, even the window sills will resist wear and rotting because they are of marble. (Tuberculosis Hospital Dedication Section, The Glasgow Times, Thursday, August 24, 1950.)

The extant state tuberculosis hospitals at Ashland, London, and Madisonville stand as tangible mid-twentieth-century representations of Kentucky’s public health campaign to cure tuberculosis. Despite the stigma attached to the contagious disease, communities celebrated the opening of the tuberculosis hospitals as steps of progress and modernity. Local newspapers published lengthy articles and advertisements leading up to the official dedications of the new hospitals. The Wednesday, September 27, 1950 edition of the Madisonville Messenger remarked on what a tuberculosis hospital meant for the community:

We Welcome A New Landmark Dedicated to Mercy! No finer tribute could be paid to Madisonville and Hopkins County than to be selected for District One’s Tuberculosis Sanatorium. We extend congratulations to the entire management and staff, and to all those whose efforts made this great monument to the future possible. Best Wishes from Another Who is Proud to Have the Sanatorium in Our Midst!