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Buffalo's Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Perrysburg

By Larry Beahan
July 2005

(This article also appeared in the Fall 2005 edition of Western New York Heritage Magazine under the title, The J.N. Adam Hospital, Perrysburg.  Please also check out Jim Bisco's, Last Look - J.N. Adam Center, in the same issue.  Back issues available on-line at:

On March 29, 1910 the Buffalo Common Council voted into law:

An act authorizing the City of Buffalo to construct, equip and maintain a Municipal Hospital or Hospitals, either within or outside the limits of said city, for the exclusive care and treatment of persons affected with incipient Tuberculosis, and authorizing said city to acquire lands for such purposes and to borrow money therefore by the issue of bonds, accepted by the city.

The White Plague, as the world-wide epidemic of TB was known, held Buffalo in its grip. Young people grew pale and thin and were carried off by fever and bloody coughs. The Federal government estimated that for every TB death there were five active cases or a million across the country. TB has struck in three generations of my own family a great uncle, an aunt, my mother and my wife. Almost everyone in my generation was infected by the disease, most so mildly that we didn't even know it. The Mycobacterium tuberculosis had been with us as far back as 2400 BC when it infected the spine of an Egyptian wealthy enough to be preserved as a mummy. Dr Richard Laub of the Buffalo Museum of Science has a mastodon bone with a typical TB lesion.

For thousands of years our bodies lived an uneasy truce with this bacterium, our immune systems kept death and disability from the disease in modest ranges. Then the industrial revolution struck. We moved off our farms and crowded into cities. We worked long hours at hard physical labor for poor wages, ate and rested meagerly. Coal smoke polluted the air; sunshine and living space were scarce. The bacterium overcame our weakened immune systems and Tuberculosis raged among us.

My Grandmother Dorothea Kessler Klein came to Buffalo from Bavaria in the 1890's. She worked as an upstairs maid for a wealthy Delaware Avenue family. When she had earned enough money she brought her mother, brother and sister over. They all moved in together. Gramma married and her nine children started being born in close succession and close quarters. Her brother, Uncle Frank, a promising young man, proud of his Knights of Columbus uniform, soon was coughing blood into the family kitchen sink. He died of Tuberculosis.

In the last half of the 19th century Doctor Alexander Spengler noted the curative effect on Tuberculosis of living in the alpine climate of Davos, Switzerland. There he established successful clinics for the treatment of Tuberculosis based on the principals of rest, fresh air and good nutrition. His patients were required to remain in bed all day, outdoors, wearing fur hats and special clothing to keep warm. His results were good.

In this same period, Doctor Edward Livingston Trudeau, the founder of the American Lung Association, adapted Spengler's "Swiss" system to the treatment of his own Tuberculosis. He moved to a small cottage at Saranac Lake in New York State's Adirondacks where he "cured." He recovered and developed there the Trudeau Sanatorium where rest, isolation, good food and the good clean air of that climate treated thousands of tubercular patients.

Responsible Buffalo citizens began to address the problem here. On December 13, 1909 Buffalo Mayor, J.N. Adam addressed a letter to the City Board of Alderman. He announced that the Tuberculosis Hospital Commission had decided to purchase 293 acres of land near Perrysburg and that he had agreed to pay for the land. He concluded his letter saying, "I will be glad to think that Buffalo was among the pioneers of the movement for subduing the ravages of a fell disease."

On January 25, 1910, The Buffalo Commercial, a newspaper of that day, headlined, "SITE IS APPROVED." Doctor Eugene Porter, New York State Commissioner of Health, met with several prominent Buffalonians in the offices of the Association for the Relief and Control of Tuberculosis. After a hearing he gave the necessary State approval to the City of Buffalo for the building of a Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Perrysburg.

The paper quoted Doctor John H. Pryor as the principal speaker. He was a trustee of the proposed hospital and a force behind the building of the State TB Sanatorium at Saranac Lake, Raybrook. Pryor described the careful selection process the Comission had gone through to arrive at this "simply ideal" location on one of the highest points in New York State, Perrysburg.

The article concludes with this paragraph indicating the popular concern of the times with issues of the public good: "In the crusade against tuberculosis, Secretary Shillady of the local organization (Association for the Relief and Control of Tuberculosis) spoke before the employees of the Buffalo Pitts Company today. On Friday he will speak to the employees of the United States Headlight Company."

Further in line with that charitable and expansive tone, the Buffalo Commercial's column immediately to the left announced a Y.M.C.A. campaign to raise $275,000 in contributions. Mr. Kinney, captain of the businessman's team in that campaign, is quoted, "Giving now makes possible a greater and more complete Y.M.C.A. and a greater Y.M.C.A. means a better grade of young men and better young men means a greater society , mentally, morally and commercially ."

The column to the right tells of a building at 210 Terrace, owned by the Whitney-Noyes Seed Company and only 12 years old, so loaded with 150 pound bags of seed that one wall virtually exploded. It may be a little facetious but I am taking this explosion of mercantile riches as symbolic of the bustling economic energy that financed that public-spirited time. A time when mayors like James Noble Adam, a Scottish immigrant and founder of J.N. Adams Department Store, would contribute their own funds to provide a site for a public hospital.

In a brochure prepared by the Graves Realty Co. describing the proposed hospital and its surroundings they report an interview with Doctor Pryor. He said, "The Perrysburg Hospital site was selected as an ideal Site for a Tuberculosis Hospital, because it fulfills practically all of the requirements. These requirements are altitude, nature of soil, protection from prevailing winds, contour of land for sewage, railroad facilities, considerable distance from city, water supply, roads to reach the hospital, grounds for walks and light work, some farm land for grazing and raising vegetables ...The altitude of the hospital is surprisingly high for this part of the country, being 1450 feet above sea level and only 100 feet lower than the Adirondack Sanatorium. The wind protection afforded by the dense woodland is ample. The view is magnificent."

Doctor Pryor took that opportunity to mention that where other tuberculosis hospitals had been built in rural settings the surrounding areas had prospered. The Hospital Authority had to spend money in the towns and such areas became known as health resorts where boarding houses flourished. He also mentioned the reassuring and counterintuitive fact that tuberculosis rates dropped in these communities.

In commenting on the negotiations to buy the hospital site, Grit-Grin, the patient's monthly publication, reports this story: "The day of inspection came around. And everybody seemed enthused except Mayor Adam and he was the one the excited land owners, then present, wanted to impress. However, he, sulky and indifferent, sat in a crude chair in one of the farm houses. Doctor Pryor seeing this said to him: "Well, what is the matter with it?' Upon which Mayor Adam signaled him to one side and said in effect: "If I become as enthusiastic as the rest of you it will require a king's ransom to secure the land...' "

Initially the Municipal commission planned to spend $200,000 to build a facility for 75 patients. They spent an additional $50,000 that gave them a building to accommodate 150 patients and supporting infrastructure that would allow expansion to 250.

Doctor Pryor employed the architect John Hopper Coxhead to design the hospital. Coxhead (1863-1943) designed buildings that remain standing today in six states. He designed and built buildings in twenty states, and ten are on the National Register of Historic Places. His most famous building in Buffalo is the much admired Delaware Avenue Baptist Church, built in 1894.

The Graves Realty Co. brochure described, in slightly odd phraseology, some of the features that Coxhead and Pryor incorporated in the red brick and white pillared building to make it then a state-of-the-art facility for treating tuberculosis. They included: "Enormous veranda space (which will allow patients to shift positions), open verandas for sun-baths. The new verandas will be 12 feet wide with an 18 feet over-hang or cover, so patient may sleep at outer edge and have clear view of the sky and be entirely in the open air. If it rains or snows or wind is too strong the bed can simply be pushed back. Instead of windows in the patients' rooms there will be French doors, so that every bed can be pushed out on the veranda, and patient can sleep in the open air."

The brochure describes the kitchen equipped with up-to-date labor saving, electrical appliances, and the enormous and most attractive dining room with tables that can be moved to the surrounding verandas. That beautiful room is 2.5 stories high and is still capped by a handsome stained-glass dome taken from the 1904 Pan American Exposition Hall of Music, the building in which McKinley was shot.

On September 13, 1912 a Buffalo Commercial headline announced "J.N. Adam Memorial Hospital Opened." It listed the large party of Buffalo dignitaries that boarded a special Erie Railroad train bound for the dedication ceremonies at Perrysburg. They included Mayor Louis P. Fuhrmann and principal speaker, Doctor John H. Pryor.

The article said that the hospital, which it described as, "Beautiful buildings designed for the care and treatment of incipient cases of tuberculosis (and) crown(ing) the highest peak of the Cattaraugus Hills...," was formally opened and turned over to a commission headed by Doctor Pryor. The reporter said, "... patients will have all the advantages of altitude possessed by those cared for at Raybrook, the buildings being fully 1500 feet above the level of the city, and will be given treatment similar to that afforded by the Raybrook institution, sleeping out-of-doors nights on broad, sheltered verandas."

Doctor Payne, in his dedication speech, made it clear that opening this facility which that next day would take in 40 early cases of adult tuberculosis was a worthy achievement but that a much greater effort was necessary. He urged the building of a children's facility nearby. As an indication of the size of the epidemic that was going on he called for a 500-bed hospital for advanced, adult cases saying, "I believe the health department, tomorrow, could find that many cases in Buffalo." He said, "Someone with wealth beyond his or her needs should give the buildings and consecrate the money to a noble, tender mission of mercy."

The next column to the right in that day's paper describes Big Frank, the famous Buffalo Zoo elephant to whom I remember feeding peanuts, as a tyke. Lumberman-philanthropist Frank H. Goodyear had donated Big Frank. The article was about the elephant's reluctance to move into an elaborate new house Frank Goodyear had built for his namesake. "First they bound him with ropes, spreading his feet a little so he couldn't walk alone, and then sawed off the old chains. Next, ropes were hitched to a windlass and such pressure was brought to bear that Frank simply had to move." Although public spirited in many ways, I don't believe Mr. Goodyear responded to Doctor Pryor's plea. Someone else did and after a time a children's unit was built across the road form the main hospital.

In the early 1930's my Aunt Eleanor, a speed skater who once beat her world champion speed-skater cousin, Kit Klein, in a race in Humboldt Park, developed chest pain and a cough. She told the family, "I got hit in the chest when we were playing snap the whip on the ice."

The doctor came to the house and after examining her whispered to Gramma, "She'll be gone by the time the leaves fall this autumn."

Aunt Eleanor went to Perrysburg. I remember visiting her there. She would come out on the porch and wave to my sister and me as we played on the lawns and in the woods. We kidded about taking her on a Sunday for a sundae in Gowanda at Parker and Farner's. She went on to Trudeau and later back to the crowded house where I was then living. Though she never beat the disease entirely the treatment she received at these two excellent institutions let her survive for 10 years rather than the 10 months predicted.

In the mid 1930's when I was about 5 my mother was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. We were terrified when she signed herself into Perrysburg. She didn't like going away either and after a month insisted on coming home. Thank God for the vagaries of this disease. Dad bought her a "cure chair." He had a hired girl come in to help out. Mom rested and recovered on her own, at home.

In my research for this article I visited the Perrysburg Historical Museum, located in the Perrysburg Town Hall which has been converted from a substantial brick school building. There I saw on display many early hospital pictures, some with children in what look like diapers playing in the snow, a well-preserved JN Adam Memorial Hospital blanket, a huge scale model of the hospital constructed in the 1930's showing many buildings that are no longer standing, several copies of the patient publication Grit-Grin and two rather touching stories.

The one story was told in a collection of six snapshots framed together. Three of them were of a thin young man first in a bathrobe, then in bed and finally with a group of other patients wearing cotton masks. There was one photo of a bright young woman in a nurse's uniform and then two photos of these two as a couple outside the hospital looking well and happy. He had come to the hospital ill, recovered, married his nurse and opened a taxi service to the railroad.

The other story was copied from Grit-Grin as told by Ivory M. Lincoln about her sister Bula. Bula E. Lincoln and Ivory, the story teller, were daughters of George Lincoln, superintendent of the Thomas Indian School on the nearby Seneca Cattaraugus Reservation. As a teen-ager in 1903 she came down with tuberculosis and was sent off to Raybrook for the best available care. But she, like my mother, was lonesome and unhappy away from home. Doctor Pryor and George Lincoln got together at a meeting of directors of State institutions and Doctor Pryor recommended they try a rest cure nearer home. Mr. Lincoln had a shack built on the grounds of the present hospital with porches all around where Bula could stay, rest and get plenty of good fresh air. She was happier there close to her family but her case was far advanced. She died in California in 1908. The shack was known as Tipperary and long after she had gone it stood there as the site of the first Sanatorium on the property and as a place for patient parties.

The issues of Grit-Grin that I looked at drew a picture of life with tuberculosis. The advice it projects is to put up with an unfortunate shuffle of the cards and make the best hand you can of what your are dealt. It contains technical articles on the disease itself and new treatments like thorocoplasty, the surgical collapse of the chest wall to rest a diseased lung. There was advice about whether moving to a western climate would be useful. The answer was that if you had an income of $1000 a year and could be happy living away from home your chances of a cure would be improved 20% by moving west.

I was particularly touched by a patient note in Grit-Grin describing the Halloween party. She reports, "The Grand March opened the evening's festivities. What an awe-inspiring sight to see those weird creatures roaming through the pavilions and around the porches. I have a photo of Aunt Eleanor on a Perrysburg porch with three friends all dressed for Halloween."

In a column headed "Women's Sun Cure," a new patient on her second day of curing, is quoted as telling her doctor that she had asked a nurse for a hot water bottle because her feet were cold. The nurse stuck up her nose and sailed out of the room. The doctor said, "Well, of course she did. She's the Head Nurse. And the patient replied, "My feet are freezing. Please send in the Foot Nurse."

A budding cartoonist who signed himself "Briggs" drew a strip describing him all bundled-up in hat, scarf and overcoat, sitting in a cure chair on a porch, worrying about his most recent cold, his weight loss and his upcoming evaluation by a doctor. The doctor, however, seems pleased with his progress and Briggs, in briefs, leaps to his feet overjoyed and looking fit.

I found much of my material for this account at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. For a time after the building of the hospital their newspaper archives have little news on the subject; then on December 4, 1955 the Buffalo Courier Express ran an article about the Perrysburg Hospital titled "Treatment methods change But institution's work continues." Treatment had become drugs, rest for a time and then vocational rehabilitation.

I was in my last year of medical school then. My wife, Lyn, pregnant with our first son, had lost weight and come down with TB, this persistent enemy of our family. She was hospitalized for nine months at the Niagara Sanatorium on Upper Mountain Road in Niagara County. Her treatment there was superb. It included absolute bed rest but Streptomycin and Isoniazid were on the scene and improved her prospects radically over those of Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Frank. Lyn came through it fine.

Treatment with drugs made long hospitalizations unnecessary. On May 17, 1960 the Buffalo Courier Express chronicled the transfer of the remaining TB patients to other hospitals in preparation for closing Perrysburg as a TB Sanatorium. Employees looked for jobs elsewhere some held on. Mentally handicapped children were to be treated there for possibly three years. But on August 8 1960 the Buffalo Courier Express ran a piece with the headline "Remodeling Spurred at J N Adam Hospital. The old TB hospital was in full scale conversion to be recycled for the education of the mentally handicapped. Doctor Pryor's old Sanatorium served the community well in this new way for another thirty years.

By 1995 methods for educating the mentally handicapped had abandoned the idea of large institutions and Perrysburg was abandoned except for some State administrative purposes. Now, for several years the buildings have been totally abandoned. Despite the fact that they have not been cared for, Coxhead's well-constructed main buildings still seem sturdy. The 450 acres of lush surrounding forest has prospered in the absence of interference. The forest contains one of the most bio-diverse forest eco-systems in the Western New York region. Only Letchworth and Allegany State Parks compare in this regard. This forest protects the watershed that supplies drinking water to the Town of Perrysburg. There are efforts going on now to find a university, corporation or outdoor enterprise that would restore and make use of this historic and beautiful place where many of us and our families found employment or regained our health.