An Art Deco Echo
Tuberculosis has, until recent decades, crippled thousands of Americans yearly. Those who contracted the disease were often whisked to remote, state-operated hospitals specialized to isolate and eradicate the feared illness. Some counties banded together to raise funds for the construction these institutions, usually located outside of major cities to serve dense populations with expansive campuses.
Many of these institutions’ layouts closely followed the “Kirkbride Plan.” The plan forms a rough set of psycho-architectural guidelines drafted by Thomas Story Kirkbride to aid in the treatment of mental illness, spawned by the then-common belief that many illnesses could be curbed or cured by fresh air and bed rest. Sometimes this was referred to as the “rest cure,” representing an extension of the mental health philosophy of the day.
Kirkbrides are the architectural trophies of America’s institutional age, and many explorers of history interested in defunct hospitals proudly hunt the nearly extinct species for its consistently amazing architectural inflections. When two explorers and I happened upon the hospital without knowing its status or condition and found it to be not only Kirkbride-like, but abandoned in its original and brilliant Art Deco styling intact, it was enough to make my first Indiana trip worthwhile.
Welcome to Silvercrest
Indiana’s Floyd County recognized the need for a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1917 but did not construct their first tuberculosis sanatorium until 1936, which could only serve only 20 patients at a time. However late the county was, by 1938 the state government had agreed to fund a new, much larger 150-bed sanatorium on the same site as the former hospital; this would be the big, very necessary change Floyd County needed.
Two years later, in August 1940, construction on the new building was complete and the State of Indiana officially opened the beautiful Art Deco-style “Silvercrest State Hospital.”
As Compared To…
Unlike many other tuberculosis hospitals established at the time, patients were not subjected to expansive dorm rooms crowded with scores of other suffers, but instead each client had their own room. Those who were suspected of tuberculosis would be isolated in the hospital and screened for symptoms under the close observation of Silvercrest doctors.
If positively diagnosed for TB, they would be assigned a room while family and bureaucrats alike negotiated the future care and treatment of the afflicted. And if the patient stayed at Silvercrest, when not in bed, they would participate in hospital arts and crafts projects, be allowed short walks around the groomed campus and eat three meals daily in the cafeteria. The hospital, like other TB institutions, included a few special areas where patients could participate in plays, concerts and limited athletics.
Compared to the infamous Waverly Hills Sanatorium just across the Ohio River, Silvercrest was very hospitable and well rounded.
In my observation, after visiting a dozen defunct sanatoriums, the smaller and closer to the served population the hospital, the more humane the treatment was and the lower the death rate. Oversight was as important in 1936 medical care as it is today, if not more.
My primary frame of reference for rural TB hospitals is, and likely will always be, Nopeming Sanatorium of Duluth, Minnesota, which I grew intimately familiar with in my various visits to Lake Superior. In a lot of ways, these two hospitals were similar in operation; they were both built around the same time and served a comparable number of people, and had a similar population reliant on it.
After abandonment, half of both Nopeming and Silvercrest were demolished while the main structure was reused in the healthcare industry.
Both places, too, have fascinated me since my visits as no abandoned brewery or mothballed factory complex has. It’s the feeling of belonging, as if one’s presence, however brief, satisfies a profound vacuum in the hospital wards, chockablock with forsaken operating rooms, tunnels and rows of numbered rooms where many people spent great portions of their lives.
The Hospital Transforms
Silvercrest served the southernmost third of Indiana at full capacity, even during a considerable 1952 expansion, which included construction of five separate, but adjacent, apartment buildings that were demolished in 2007. By the 60s, however, tuberculosis became a better-managed public health risk because of the advancement of antibiotics.
As a consequence of tuberculosis coming under control, in 1972 Silvercrest State Hospital was converted to “Silvercrest Children’s Development Center” to serve the next community in need. Housing between 60 and 80 multiple-diagnosis children, it might surprise you, is not too different from treating tuberculosis patients—sadly, that is because they both require constant attention. Most other tuberculosis sanatoriums I’ve explored have been remodeled, usually slightly, into nursing homes.
This location, though, has somehow retained unique room-by-room vibrant paint schemes, but also the heavy security doors and Crosses of Lorraine motifs, the classic icon of tuberculosis.
A few new features stood out, owed to the conversion into the Development Center in the form of a half-dozen blue-padded rooms and suicide watch rooms where convex mirrors stuck out from the corners of reinforced walls and thick plastic protected pale-yellow light bulbs, set into high ceilings. I’ll never forget the fingernail scratch marks on the door’s perforated Plexiglas.
Still Not Out of the Woods
Sun rooms, where patients would once get fresh air and observe the changing seasons, had been largely stripped of their Art Moderne features and windows sheathed in plastic, sharply cracked where bodies and chairs of another time impacted it. There is an inclination for me to assume that some mentally unstable adults were housed here when it was still sometimes referred to as “Southern Indiana Tuberculosis Hospital,” as was very common in other sanatoriums where there were no nearby insane asylums, but I have not found any records indicating this. Take it as a gut feeling that this place has seen a lot of sickness, and not only tuberculosis and troubled teens.
Crossing the long tiled hallways, the warm afternoon sunlight reflected through the pastel-colored rooms and behind thick wooden doors, casting rainbows across the dusty tile floors, we walked from vacant history into the sun again.
Tripods extended and cameras mounted, I strolled for the last time along the overgrown sidewalks behind the abandoned hospital toward the car, the violet sky reflected across the bright steel trim across the “SILVERCREST” emblem… a tarnished crown for architecture left behind, in the woods, as hidden as it was always intended to be.