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Cure Cottages in the Age of Consumption

Tuberculosis patients on a cure porch

During the tuberculosis outbreak of the late 1800s, families flocked to cure cottages in the rural country. Cure cottages were part of a new treatment method which involved exposing the afflicted to fresh air while being kept on complete bedrest. While visiting family this past weekend in the Adirondacks, I took some time out of my visit to venture out to Saranac Lake, NY; ground zero for the cure cottage movement.

The Affliction

Victorian depiction of consumption
Victorian depiction of consumption

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection which, in most cases, affects the lungs and respiratory system. Once infected, the patient, will seemingly be “consumed” by the disease experiencing extreme weight loss, hence it’s moniker “consumption”. The disease can be a silent one, often not exhibiting signs of infection in latent cases. Once the disease becomes active, more than half of patients will die if left untreated. However, in these cases consumption is not contagious to others.

My own mother, a nurse in the Adirondacks, was required by the hospital to regularly be tested for latent TB. At one point she did, in fact, test positive and was put on a regular regiment of antibiotics and treatment. Somehow she had come in contact with the disease throughout her many years caring for others in the area. After continuous testing she was cleared of any  remnants of the disease in her system. However, it’s a reminder of how easily the disease can spread without the realization that someone is even encountering it.

In active cases, consumption can spread by the coughing, sneezing, spit of patients. It’s a quiet killer, almost always never exhibiting symptoms until it’s too late for the patient. Currently The World Health Organization attributes it as the leading infectious cause of death in the world with one third of the world’s population perishing at it’s hands.

German Roots

Hermann Brehmer
Hermann Brehmer

During the fight with consumption, many potential cures were experimented with. The most infamous and promising of these was implemented by a German physician named Hermann Brehmer. During his studies Brehmer was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Relocating to the Himalayas, Brehmer managed to cure himself of the disease and attributed this to the fresh air and cleaner climate. He went on to write a dissertation titled, “Tuberculosis is a Cureable Disease.” The first German sanitorium for the systematic open-air treatment of tuberculosis was founded by him and carried on by Peter Deittweiler. Both of these men would have profound effect on Edward Trudeau, who would bring the practice to Saranac Lake in the 1880s by way of the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium.

Chasing a Cure

Trudeau Sanitorium
Trudeau Sanitorium in Saranac Lake

Edward Trudeau would find himself in a similar position to Brehmer. His brother perishing from consumption within a 3 month period, Trudeau was compelled to become a physician to hunt down a cure for the disease that claimed his brother. During his studies, he, too, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Similarly instructed to travel to an area with clearer air, Trudeau found himself in the Adirondack mountains of New York at the Paul Smith’s Hotel. Subsequently, Trudeau was also able to cure himself after exposing himself to the fresh air of the mountains. After discovering the work of Brehmer, Trudeau would embark on a similar mission eventually founding the first institution for treatment in the area. Trudeau believed it important that patients not be put into clinical settings, but instead, cottage like homes equipped with large screened in porches. These porches would allow for patients to bathe in the fresh mountain air that would ideally cure them.

The Business of Tuberculosis

After many prominent figures would venture to the Adirondacks to cure themselves or family members, word spread of the tiny town in the mountains. Some of the most infamous being Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and Will Rogers. The town found it’s population rapidly expanding as the news that tuberculosis was a contagious disease broke. Many other towns would turn people with consumption away, afraid the the affliction would spread among their population. Saranac Lake, however, welcomed these people with open arms. The population would boom by more than 5,000 people over the course of 40 brief years.

Along with the expanding populations, homes in the area were literally expanding. Many found themselves in lucrative business opportunities and decided to build additions onto their homes. Porches and sunrooms were awkwardly tacked onto already established homes to welcome the sick. New buildings lined wall to wall with porches were erected and opened as homes for the sick.

Types of Cottages

Patients ranged from the poor to the ultra wealthy. Not surprisingly, treatment and accommodations were quite different between classes. Everyone was seeking the same results but the path to a cure was easier for some and daunting for others. Many different cottages and subsequent services were created address these differences.

When it came to the ultra wealthy, families such as the Aldrich’s whose patriarch was the head of The Atlantic Monthly, you could simply hire an architect to build a custom home for you. William Coulter, an architect in the area at the time, would design many homes for wealthy clients in the area. The house he designed for the Aldrich’s would be dubbed “The Porcupine” due to all the high points in the design. Some of the “Great Camps of the Adirondacks” were also built during this time.

Vaudeville News Ad for the Sanatorium for Vaudeville Artists

Other institutions would also be built for various ethnicities, social groups, and professions. One of the most famous being the National Vaudeville Artists Hospital which was built specifically to help performance artists battling tuberculosis at the time. It currently is known as the Saranac Village at Will Rogers, operating as a senior housing facility. My own grandmother lived there for a time and I can attest to it’s grandeur as well as eeriness. My grandmother once whispered to us a rumor shared by the current residents. They told each other the furniture in the rooms was actually furnished from the basement, where the belongings of those who died there before were kept. Needless to say, the sprawling campus is a place that has a close relationship with death and the sick.

New nurses pose in 1917

For others who couldn’t afford their own cure cottage or camp, there were a few differing types of accommodations and services.  Nursing cottages were established for those who were unable to get around and take care of themselves in their advanced state. Boarding cottages would offer a place for the sick to stay for extended periods of times and also provided services for external cottages which didn’t provide boarding. This would involve bringing meals to patients at those cottages.

Cure Cottages Today

Slowly as vaccines and treatment expanded to snuff out tuberculosis, many of the cure cottages and institutions either crumbled or were repurposed for other means. Sometimes these reincarnations were masterfully done and others tragically underwhelming. Here are some of the surviving structures.

Exterior view of "The Porcupine Inn" formerly the Aldrich Cottage
Exterior view of “The Porcupine Inn” formerly the Aldrich Cottage. You can see the multiple cure porches which lined the back of the property. This now functions as a bed and breakfast.

Heading Home

During my visit to Saranac Lake, it started as a sunny summer day and slowly as we drove into town the clouds increased and it got quite gloomy! It definitely set the mood. The trip was actually first prompted by my sister Erica and I driving up to Lake Placid together so we could both do some writing. It only occurred to me afterwards that we had the perfect opportunity to check out some really interesting history just a town over.

The area is no stranger to us. We grew up in the Adirondacks. Both of our grandparents had homes on opposite sides of Whiteface mountain; one in Jay and the other in Onchiota. Both of our parents also spent their early adult years in the mountains. To say that this area feels like home is an understatement. As I mentioned above, our Grandma also lived in Will Rogers for a time. For these reasons, this post in particular feels very personal.

Our first stop was at Noyes Cottage on Helen St. My sister was nervous about parking on the steep hill while I stepped out to snap some photos. I knew that the roads are rarely trafficked though…and apparently the same could be said about the former Noyes Cottage. It was very clear that the home had been abandoned after being converted to apartments. Windows were broken out, however, the doors were wide open with rugs hanging over the banisters. Seemingly someone may have purchased the home and be renovating it? Either way, Erica wasn’t fond when I suggested we pop inside to take a look. I mean, there wasn’t a car outside. What could go wrong? We skipped the trespassing and headed over to the next stop on Park Ave.

Park Avenue in Saranac Lake is one of the more densely populated areas when it comes to historic homes; most of these being historical cure cottages. Our destination was 247 Park Ave where the former Larom Cottage stood. Once again, this home was barren and desolate. It appeared that someone must have lived in the home within the past decade because a freestanding basketball hoop still sat by the garage in the back. That was in stark contrast to the broken windows and the crumbling cedar siding. There was a for sale sign in the front of the yard so of course I looked up the listing.

The house is over 3,000 sq feet and boasts 9 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, and multiple functioning fireplaces. The home was purchased in 2017 for over $500k and for some reason was dropped more than 75% in price…any speculation as to why?

Front view of the Larom house with the two story cure porch additions to the right.
Front view of the Larom house with the two story cure porch additions to the right.

Well I have one theory and it’s pretty much my theory about everything. It’s obviously haunted. My suspicions in this case are not completely unfounded. In 2013, the Syfy channel show “Paranormal Witness” did a full episode featuring a converted cure cottage in Saranac Lake. It follows Mike, the new homeowner of a large historic home which was formerly a cure cottage. The history unbeknownst to him, his aim was to renovate the large property and convert it to apartments. He had a hard time keeping tenants once they began experiencing regular supernatural activity.

Grim Reminders

After visiting the Larom Cottage and dreaming of owning a former cure cottage, reality hit when we headed over to Pine Ridge Cemetery. Pine Ridge is the original village cemetery and is the resting place of Jacob Moody, the first settler of Saranac Lake. Covered by tall pine trees and built up in walled layers on the steep hill, we wound our way along the narrow path cleared for cars to drive through.

We managed to get out and explore for a bit. Some areas were clearly older than others and we managed to find some pretty beautiful stones. The only uncomfortable part of this was being constantly cawed at by crows in the trees and swarmed by black flies. Neither my sister or I escaped without some gnarly bug bites.

In addition to being the resting place of many early settlers of Saranac Lake, there are also over thousands of TB patients who lost their lives buried in unmarked graves throughout the sprawling hills. As many as 5,000 bodies are lying in repose here.

Adelaide Crapsy during her time at the cure cottage overlooking Pine Ridge cemetery
Adelaide Crapsy during her time at the cure cottage overlooking Pine Ridge cemetery.

During her battle with tuberculosis, the famous poet Adelaide Crapsey resided at the cure cottage which overlooks the cemetery. Crapsey ended up dying from consumption and had this poem posthumously published. It reflects on her time spent in the cure cottage looking out the windows onto Pine Ridge, which she called, “Trudeau’s Garden.” I think it’s a fitting encapsultation of this trip and the reality of a very unique moment in time.

To The Dead in the Graveyard Underneath My Window by Adelaide Crapsy

How can you lie so still? All day I watch
And never a blade of all the green sod moves
To show where restlessly you toss and turn,
And fling a desperate arm or draw up knees
Stiffened and aching from their long disuse;
I watch all night and not one ghost comes forth
To take its freedom of the midnight hour.

Oh, have you no rebellion in your bones?
The very worms must scorn you where you lie,
A pallid mouldering acquiescent folk,
Meek habitants of unresented graves.

Why are you there in your straight row on row
Where I must ever see you from my bed
That in your mere dumb presence iterate
The text so weary in my ears: “Lie still
And rest; be patient and lie still and rest.”
I’ll not be patient! I will not lie still!

There is a brown road runs between the pines,
And further on the purple woodlands lie,
And still beyond blue mountains lift and loom;
And I would walk the road and I would be
Deep in the wooded shade and I would reach
The windy mountain tops that touch the clouds.
My eyes may follow but my feet are held.

Recumbent as you others must I too
Submit? Be mimic of your movelessness
With pillow and counterpane for stone and sod?
And if the many sayings of the wise
Teach of submission I will not submit
But with a spirit all unreconciled
Flash an unquenched defiance to the stars.

Better it is to walk, to run, to dance,
Better it is to laugh and leap and sing,
To know the open skies of dawn and night,
To move untrammeled down the flaming noon,
And I will clamour it through weary days
Keeping the edge of deprivation sharp,
Nor with the pliant speaking on my lips
Of resignation, sister to defeat.
I’ll not be patient. I will not lie still.

And in ironic quietude who is
The despot of our days and lord of dust
Needs but, scarce heeding, wait to drop
Grim casual comment on rebellion’s end;
“Yes, yes . . Wilful and petulant but now
As dead and quiet as the others are.”
And this each body and ghost of you hath heard
That in your graves do therefore lie so still.

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