Thursday, December 12, 2013

Chicago Fresh Air Hospital, 2451 W. Howard

The Chicago Fresh Air Hospital was a tuberculosis sanatorium in West Ridge at the southwest corner of Western and Howard, in the middle of what had been 20 acres of the Peter Gouden farm.  Although mostly forgotten today, tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century.  With increased urbanization, over-crowding, and insufficient sanitation, it became a devastating epidemic.  
Original Sanatorium Footprint Outlined in Red

A system of sanatoriums were developed to treat those who suffered from the disease, despite the fact that there was no effective treatment at the time.  Instead, sanatoriums focused on rest, nutrition and exercise.  Patients would sometimes remain for years in these facilities before recovery or death.  In actuality, the real public health benefit of the sanatoriums may have been to remove the sick from the general population, where they could no longer transmit the illness.

The Chicago Fresh Air Hospital was chartered in 1909, the same year the Glackin Tuberculosis Law gave the city of Chicago the ability to raise funds for the treatment and control of tuberculosis through a special property tax. The total cost of the building was estimated to be $150,000 for 95 beds, and the non-profit hospital was up and running by December 1911. 

The Chicago Fresh Air Hospital catered to middle-class patients who could afford the $15 to $25 weekly fees. Wealthier tubercular patients might go to more luxurious sanatoriums, which often  resembled resorts.  The tubercular poor were relegated to municipal sanatoriums, at the low end of the spectrum. Typically sanatoriums would be located in remote areas, since visitors were discouraged and "fresh air" was plentiful.

Top photo printed in "Chicago's Far North Shore" (CHS Collection)
In 1943 streptomycin was developed and the need for tuberculosis sanatoriums faded. It also meant that sanatoriums needed a new reason to exist. By 1947 the Chicago Fresh Air Hospital had expanded its mission to treat all types of lung disease and was fundraising to add more beds and diagnostic equipment.  Eight years later, the hospital merged with Augustana Hospital, and became Augustana's division for the chronically ill.

In 1957, Augustana sold off most of the 20 acres around the hospital, which was promptly subdivided.  The area to the east became the Howard-Western Shopping Center, and the area to the west was developed as multifamily residential buildings.  Having raided the property for its land value, Augustana soon sold it to the Steward's Foundation, which spent about $500,000 to convert it into the Bethesda General Hospital on the remaining 1.8 acres. That was in 1958.

In 1965, the grand classical revival facade designed by architect M.J. Stevens was removed to accommodate a large front addition angling towards Howard Street.  An additional floor was added to the historic structure.  These additions more than doubled the size of the building, which functioned as Bethesda Hospital until 1988, when it became Mount Sinai Hospital North.  But due to its proximity to other hospitals it was felt that it could no longer be competitive.

Original building footprint emphasized in red.

At this point the record goes a bit cold.  But I do know that a developer proceeded to convert the building into condos in the late 1990s.  This succeeded, more or less, but the condo market had collapsed.  Now the building is operated as apartment rentals.   But, if you take a close look from the side, you can still see the outline of West Ridge's sanatorium peeking out from the cast concrete and artificial stucco accretions.

Most of the information in this post is taken from old Chicago Tribune articles accessed digitally through the Chicago Public Library. Some information was also used from Sheila Rothman's book, "Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History."  The name of the architect was found in in a database developed by the Chicago History Museum with permit information from "American Contractor."  The name of the farm where the hospital was located is taken from the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society's HistoryWiki.


  1. I once had a relative who gave birth to a child while living at the TB sanatorium on Peterson.
    Thank you for sharing the source of your research, and the 'before and after' photographs.

  2. I think this was not uncommon. People spent years at these places, and life would go on for them despite a rule-heavy regimen that all patients were expected to follow.

    I always get frustrated when reading blogs which don't share their sources. If anyone every wants a more specific reference to an article or source please leave a comment and I'll respond.

  3. Thank you for this excellent post. I had read about this hospital in old Tribune articles and wondered what it looked like. With all the different spaces in the area where it used to be, it's been hard to imagine.

  4. It's still hard to imagine that the behemoth on the site completely contains the old hospital. I wonder if some of the rear units have strange remnants from the hospital.

  5. Thank you SO much for this fascinating article! It brings back many memories for me because I worked at Bethesda Hospital; there was a wonderful family feeling at that hospital.

  6. When I was a kid, I went to Bethesda hospital a couple of times for blood tests. Walking to the back seemed a bit strange as there was a hallway where the floor was on a slight slant and uneven. Now seeing this, I understand that the floor was constructed decades earlier than I thought.