A seemingly endless stretch of wilderness faced the house I grew up in on Chicago’s far north side. Dense stands of old-growth trees stood guard around its perimeter. Looking west from our front door, all I could see beyond the green chain-link fence was grass, trees and a tall dark tower.
As we know from Alice’s adventures, nothing works better than a “Do Not Enter” sign to arouse a child’s curiosity. I always wondered what lay hidden behind the trees.
I was six in 1961, the year we moved into a house across from the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. My parents particularly liked the location because they thought the street had a rural feel.
It’s true we had more open space than most city neighborhoods. A grassy ten-foot-wide parkway skirted the outside of the sanitarium fence. There were no cement curbs on either side of Central Park—the edge of the street went right up to the edge of our front lawn, like in the suburbs. And in 1961 every house on the street had a tree in front, though every one of the trees was a soon-to-be-diseased elm.
I appreciated those enormous trees, especially for their leaves. We raked them, played in them and watched them smolder. Back then the smell of burning leaves hung in the air for weeks. I had mixed feelings, however, about living so near a place I couldn’t enter, let alone understand what purpose it served.
A Gated Community
For some reason, the chain-link fence ran along the Central Park and Peterson sides, but an iron fence, with nine-foot-high brick columns between the sections, enclosed the grounds along Pulaski and Bryn Mawr. It is—parts of the original still stand—the kind of fence you see surrounding haunted houses and graveyards in old horror movies.
Since we rarely passed the entrance to the sanitarium, I never saw people entering or leaving. There was an opening between the trees in front of our house, but the only signs of life were the security guards who cruised by, twice a day, in unmarked cars on an asphalt road inside the fence.
I remember believing security dogs roamed the grounds, but I don’t recall ever seeing any dogs. The story may have been something kids said to scare one another. Sometimes our parents scared us, too, with threats to send us to the TB sanitarium for a night or two if we didn’t shape up.
This is a small guard house at the north end of our block. It was built for a service entrance to the sanitarium that was no longer in use by the time we moved in, but a black sign with white letters and the city emblem remained arched over the driveway. At night hot pink neon illuminated the type and made it visible for several blocks. The sight of the sign glowing in the darkness meant we were almost home.
Despite the Gothic fence, the boundary between us and the sanitarium wasn’t all that clear to me. Central Park Avenue was, and still is, a one-way southbound street. Whenever my parents gave directions to our house, they made it sound as though we lived on the grounds: “When you get to the TB sanitarium, take a left and drive about a half block down.”
Some kids said living across from the sanitarium was weird. Apparently the original neighbors, back in 1911, agreed. NIMBY, they protested, when the city announced the sanitarium would be built on that parcel. They were afraid of catching tuberculosis from patients.
The immediate neighbors may have been vocal but their numbers sure were small. In an early aerial photograph, taken after the sanitarium opened, there were two houses on Central Park and four on Drake, the next street over to the east. As you may be able to see in the photograph, the blond brick bungalow-style houses are identical.
This land is your land …
In the mid-1850s a Swedish immigrant, Pehr Samuel Peterson, obtained the land. He had a landscape nursery business that thrived in the rich clay loam soil and he eventually owned more than 500 acres.
Peterson’s plants and trees ended up all over the city and most famously on the grounds of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park. After his death in 1903, Peterson’s family donated 160 acres to the city specifically earmarked for the building of a public sanitarium. Before Peterson’s arrival, the land had belonged to the Potawatomi tribe.
NIMBY protesters aren’t the only part of this story that sounds familiar. Chicago politics, it goes without saying, played a tragic role. Dr. Theodore B. Sachs, a Russian Jewish immigrant, pioneered the movement to establish and fund a public health facility to control tuberculosis in the city of Chicago and treat the thousands of urban poor suffering from TB. He served as director of the committee overseeing the construction of the sanitarium and the sanitarium’s first president.
During his very first year as president, Dr. Sachs was drawn into a power struggle he couldn’t win with Mayor William “Big Bill” Hale Thompson, a man who had the ear of Al Capone and was named one of the most corrupt mayors in American history. Amid phony charges of misappropriation of building funds, Sachs resigned from his position and committed suicide, just one year after the opening of the sanitarium:
Thus, when machine politics rolled down upon Dr. Sachs, his kind and sensitive soul, hidden by an irritable exterior, could not take it. (1)
The end of an era
By the 1970s, the incidence of TB had diminished and the hospital was empty and in disrepair. On January 1, 1975, the sanitarium was closed down. The short version of what happened next, leaving out the politics and community activism, is that the city’s redevelopment plans for the parcel included, among various things, a public park. Mayor Bilandic presided over the opening ceremony in 1978 and I was there, among the first tuberculosis-free Chicagoans allowed to enjoy the natural beauty of these historic grounds.
What were the forbidden places of your childhood? Did you ever get inside?
Come back next Monday for a look inside the former Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, now divided into two sections, North Park Village and Peterson Park. Here’s a preview.
Note: (1) Chest, 1939;5;11-26.
Sources: Wikipedia, Chicagoparkdistrict.com, Encylopedia of Chicago, The Municipal Control of Tuberculosis in Chicago, and Bright Lights Dim Beauty of Chicago, a blog. Photograph of Dr. Sachs, from The Project Gutenberg Ebook of How to Live, by Irving Fisher and Eugene Fisk, 1916.