Forbidden Places–Part One

mapA 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: WikipediaChicagoparkdistrict.comEncylopedia of ChicagoThe 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.

Related posts: Forbidden Places Part Two, Part Three, Epilogue, A Patient’s Story

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32 Responses to Forbidden Places–Part One

  1. Deanna January 25, 2010 at 10:20 am #

    This is written so well and the pictures really add to it! I feel like I am a kid back then with you – so curious and a little nervous to go in. We had an empty field behind my childhood home that we all played in – it wasn’t forbidden (well, except for the railroad tracks) and we were pretty certain it was there expressly for our entertainment. We were devastated when they built houses there!

  2. Gilberto Gonzalez,MD January 26, 2010 at 10:37 pm #

    I enjoyed reading this article. It brought memories of the time I was a thoracic surgery resident at the M.T.S 47 years later it is hard to believe it is all history; however, I am glad it is so. There was so much misery in that place.
    I am writing my memories of that period. When I finish it, I intend to post it.

  3. frances728 January 26, 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    Dr. Gonzalez, you’ll have to let me know when you post your memories so I can read them. I’d be very interested.

  4. Bonnie McGrath January 28, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    ironically, the nature center on the property–now that the days of TB are gone–hosted an incredibly scary halloween walk that i used to go to every year when my daughter was small in the 1980s. they still might do that.. but i don’t do the scary halloween walks anymore, and don’t know where the good ones are anymore.. this one on the grounds you are writing about was really scary and really well done–and afterwards they would serve cider and hot chocolate and such while everyone got their courage up and let their nerves settle down!!

  5. Mike February 8, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    Thanks for writing these pieces! When I was a child, my dentist’s office was on Peterson just east of Central Park, and I remember well that foreboding tower sticking up over the winter, barren trees (this would have been in the early 1980s). I also vaguely remember passing an overgrown, boarded-up house on Central Park – this must have been the groundskeeper’s house. Thanks for mentioning it; I think it’s gone now and I was beginning to think I imagined it!

    My father had a friend who was a patient there, but aside from that he’d regularly sneak out to hang with his buddies, I don’t have any more information than that.

  6. Ellen February 15, 2010 at 11:09 am #

    My house where I grew up is still across the street. I once found it creepy but now that it is a park and senior center it’s so nice. Great article brought me back there. My sister still lives in the house.

  7. Samuel Cordero December 29, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    As a patient at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium from 1950 to 1953, I take exception to a viewpoint that would summarily characterize the Sanitarium as a place with “so much misery.“ There was pain, suffering and death—inherent in any health-care institution, but the Sanitarium was a city within a city.
    Living there became a way of life. We forged friendships and cared about each other’s lives and their road to recovery. We lived basically in a non-threatening friendly environment—many residents attending educational and occupational therapy classes, attending mass at the beautiful Sacred Heart Chapel, attending entertaining events and movies in the equally beautiful theatre on the grounds, we listened to visiting outdoor summer concerts, watched and cheered visiting baseball teams playing their games on the grounds, and enjoyed the landscaped walks and grounds.
    With all due respect to Dr. Gonzalez, I will attest to the fact that the surgery floor in the infirmary building was highly regarded by all the patients. Sixty years later, my stay at M.T.S. remains vivid in my mind. It has had a very positive and profound influence on a rich and fulfilling life that I did not expect to have.

  8. Frances Archer December 29, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    Thanks for your comment. Your account matches those from the two other patients I’ve heard from, and it’s a wonder that such an exceptional place existed in Chicago. I recently went inside the chapel and took a couple of photographs, just the lobby as there was a service going on, so I will post those soon, after the holidays.

    I also wonder what it must have been like to spend 2-3 years in a sanitarium. You wouldn’t have know when you’d be discharged, and how to pick up your life again.

  9. Steve January 18, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    I remember this as a nature sancutury in the 1980’s and 1990’s—I was a student at North Park. I am pretty sure that my mother was in the TB saniterium years ago but she never said anything, even through she drove past it dozens of times. I would be interested in searching old records please let me know when you get the website up and running.

  10. Frances Archer January 18, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    Steve, the nature center opened in the late seventies. It remains a beautiful spot and there’s lots of photographs of its wildlife on Flickr. If you have any of your mother’s stories to contribute that would be great. I’ll announce the launch in about two weeks.

  11. Karen Wackrow February 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    My memories of the sanitarium are quite different. My parents Marilyn and Elmer met at the Sanitarium, got married had my brother Richard and I and then got sick all over again some years later. Elmer died at home when he was 36 and Marilyn in the sanitarium at 39.

    I was there just once and only waited in the guardhouse while my Aunt dropped something off to my Mom. It must have been about 1961 or 1962. Much too young to go to visit a patient because in those days you had to be 16.

    I wonder, Dr. Gonzales if you treated my mother. She had just one quarter of one lung left when she died and I was told it made medical history.

  12. Karen Zych March 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Thank You for this blog. I am 57 and having many memories of the time my mother, Alice Zych was in the San, as she called it. She would have been in sometime from 1955 for 10 months as I am told. Oddly enough she died at 74 with COPD, more likely from smoking, but my three siblings died from lung cancer at 44, 47 and 60. I am wondering if our families lungs are already compromised genetically. But U of C states that it was caused by lifestyle of both my parents smoking and my siblings.

    I am working on life issues and wondering if there is any where I can confirm the dates of her stay there? Any help would be appreciated. My Mom also spoke of a clean enviornment and made many good friends there, that are all now gone. Mom has been gone 14 yrs.

  13. Frances Archer March 7, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    Karen, I appreciate your visiting. What you remember of your mother’s account of her stay matches up with the positive experiences other patients recall. I don’t know how to find the records of the San. Chicago Department of Health might be a good starting place.

  14. Karen Zych March 13, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

    Yesterday, I decided to visit the old San. It is now senior housing. Spoke to a resident there and drove around. The cottages are gone, but there is a beautiful nature path and some of the buildings are still there. Do you know what the building with the hugh smoke stack was?
    I also saw that the State TB San was on Taylor street and the UIC Library had minutes from past board meetings 1950’s etc. Interesing.

  15. Karen Zych March 13, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    Read part two and it seems it was the laundry, now looking at the photos, they all make sense. I will take my older sister there in the spring. I saw a gray squirrel chasing a black squirrel and took several photos. The Last time I saw a black squirrel was at Niagra Falls. I grew up here in Chicago with lots of Oak trees around, but never a Black Squirrel.
    Would have liked to get into the church. Thanks so much for this blog !!!

  16. Frances Archer March 13, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Karen, thanks for your comments. Yes, the building with the smoke stack was the laundry and also the power plant. I think you can just walk into the church. It wasn’t locked last time I was there. That is an interesting note about the UIC Library having minutes from past board meetings. Thank you very much for that information.

  17. Vasyl May 5, 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    Frances, thanks for this. I stumbled on this blog, and read it with loads of interest — I grew up on Central Park in the 1970s and 80s as well, right across from the groundskeeper’s house. Until the city opened the park, it was a giant forbidden zone that I knew so little about. Our family cat, on the other hand, thought it was a great big hunting and play ground, but the darn creature would never tell us anything 🙂

  18. Frances Archer May 5, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    We were on Central Park at the same time. My parents didn’t move (and then only across the street) until the early ’90s. Did you also go to Peterson?
    It is kind of strange how we all completely ignored the sanitarium, but it was like having an elephant in a room: you couldn’t miss it.

  19. Bob McCarthy May 13, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    My mother’s mom stayed here her final five years of her life (1929-1934) My grandfather would take public transportation to MTS with his children including my mom and they would stand outside looking up at their mom in a window and wave and that was the extent of their relationship between them and their mom in the final five years of her life. (How sad). After reading this blog it sounds as if this building still stands. I’m going to make it a point to take my mom up there even though it’ll be a sad memory my mom wants to revisit it.

  20. Frances Archer May 13, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    Bob, thanks for visiting and sharing your family’s experience with MTS. Some of the buildings are still standing, though not many. But they are all in use and appear from the outside to be in good condition. Visit on a day with good weather and that will make it somewhat easier for your mother, as the grounds are beautiful. There is still a rock garden with a waterfall, and benches to sit on near it. Your mother must have been very young at the time.

  21. Bob McCarthy June 23, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    She was seven at the time her mother was admitted and twelve when she passed. In those days the state was going to put her and her younger siblings in a orphanage after her mom passed. My mom with the aid of a aunt convinced them that together they’ll manage the family which would keep them from being seperated. I can’t imagine taking on that kind of responsibility at that young age. And as usual when asked about it we would always hear the typical response “well you just did what you had to do” But then again that’s why that generation is referred so often as the “Greatest”.

  22. Frances Archer June 23, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    Bob, you’re so right about the hardships early generations managed to endure: we just can’t imagine their lives.

  23. Ray April 11, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    About the chapel… I went in today with some friends…there was no one about and we were being quiet…after a few minutes some people came in and kicked us out. We were told that you had to get permission at the security office first to take any photos, much less go in. Then they locked the doors. So, be careful.

  24. Frances Archer April 11, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    Thank you for the warning. I can understand if they want to be sure no one damages the building bit we ought to be able to look at it. Thanks for stopping by.

  25. Kay Wade March 1, 2013 at 7:41 am #

    I moved into Senate Senior Apts. in Sept. 2012. There are three senior HUD facilities at North Park Village. I love seeing the deer and the Canada geese. My first visit to this area was in 2003 when my grandson, Colton Ramsdell, took the preschool gymnastics class in the building across from the Admin. building. I voted in the dining room of the TB Sanitarium and loved looking at all the lovely stone reliefs on the walls. I started volunteering at the Nature Center in order to find out more about this area as nobody at Senate Apts. seemed to know (or care) about the history of NPV. So, Thanks Frances!
    I was happy to meet you at the Nature Center Volunteer Potluck last night (2/28/13).

  26. Frances Archer March 1, 2013 at 8:07 am #

    Kay, thanks for stopping by my website. I’m so glad we met yesterday at the NPV potluck supper. Looking forward to collaborating with you on more research into the history of this area. See you next week.

  27. Sharon Thompson July 27, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

    Frances — Strongly suggest you research the question of race & the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis sanitarium. To start, take a look at Maxine A. Browne’s book, 149 Palmer Street, pp. 48-59. ST

  28. Frances Archer July 27, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    Thanks for the suggestion, Sharon. Will look into the book.

  29. Teri Thara August 18, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    Not until my marriage in 1975 did I find out that I was born in a TB Sanitarium, when Mom had to give me my birth certificate. I guess she was ashamed.

    I was born in 1956 and I am still curious about my birth. It ended up that my mother did not have TB but scar tissue from some childhood disease. When I was born, I was immediately taken from my mom where I spent 6 mos. living with my aunt & uncle before Mom was released.

    I would love to visit the site, but how do I find which TB sanitarium I was indeed born in. I think it was the one on Bryn Mawr & Central Park, but not sure. Only thing I can think of as to why it was that location, my parents were very poor.

    Thanks for the help!

  30. Frances Archer August 28, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Hi, Teri. Very glad to hear from you. Teri, if you birth certificate says Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, then that refers to the one that was located at Bryn Mawr and Pulaski. I learned about the birth certificates from a former grade school classmate who told me his father had been born there and that’s what his father’s birth certificate said. I later found a reference to the birth certificates in some research but can’t recall offhand where. They did have a nursery at the Sanitarium and in the beginning they had children’s cottages, but at some point, probably before you were born, they stopped admitting children with TB and didn’t allow any children under 16 on the premises.

    It’s odd in hindsight that people were ashamed of TB, but I suppose that is because it wasn’t understood. If you are in the Chicago area, you may be interested in joining me on a walking tour of the grounds coming up in October. I will post an announcement soon, but it will on Saturday, October 5 at 1 pm. We will been in the North Park Village Nature Center. The entrance to North Park Village is on Pulaski, between Peterson and Bryn Mawr. You’ll see a map and signs that will help you find the Nature Center. If you are interested, call the Nature Center to RSVP: (312) 744-5472.

    I have written a couple blogs about earlier tours:

  31. Michael November 29, 2015 at 12:36 am #

    Back in 1988, on a dare, I went into the abandoned building at night.There were used needles and drug paraphernalia everywhere. It seemed as if there had been occasional visitors who spent the night to stay out of the cold. If someone had emerged from the shadows, I would have probably died right then and there.
    It was a much different scene from the park below with its occasional deer and families playing.

  32. Frances Archer November 29, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    Hi, Michael. You’re not the only one who explored the abandoned property. I’ve heard from others who also snuck in after the sanitarium was closed. I’m not sure I would have had the courage but I sure wish I had seen it.

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