You’ll see them all around Saranac Lake, New York: Victorian-style homes with long wrap-around porches and balconies. These are the Saranac Lake “cure cottages,” and for several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were where you came to get “cured” of tuberculosis.
The idea started with Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, a pioneer in the study and treatment of tuberculosis, the highly infectious and often fatal bacterial disease historically known as “consumption” and commonly abbreviated as “TB.” Shortly after becoming a physician, Trudeau contracted TB himself.
The general consensus of the time was that a change in climate could help defeat the respiratory disease. Heeding this advice, Trudeau moved to the Adirondacks, spending as much restful time as possible in the fresh mountain air and subsequently regaining his health.
Other doctors were having similar results with patients, so Trudeau opened a TB sanitarium in Saranac Lake in 1885. His sanitarium didn’t resemble the large, foreboding institutional hospitals of the day. Instead, he opted for a more intimate setting. His first patients were treated in a one-room “cottage” where they could have easy access to fresh air.
As more and more TB patients came to Saranac Lake, ordinary citizens began to capitalize on the treatment trend. “Cure cottages” were established all around town. Some of these were existing houses with new construction to accommodate patients, while others were built specifically for treatment. But all had one thing in common: long open-air porches where patients could rest for up to eight hours a day on special loungers and recliners.
Robert Louis Stevenson came to Saranac Lake for treatment in 1887, further bolstering the town’s reputation. As more TB patients arrived, more mom-and-pop cure cottages sprung up. Some cottages even catered to specific ethnicities or occupations, like one cottage that specialized in the care of circus people.
Another surge in patients occurred during World War I, when lung damage caused by exposure to chemical weapons increased the chances of contracting tuberculosis. Baseball great Christy Mathewson came down with TB after serving in the war and died of his illness in Saranac Lake in 1925.
With the development of an effective antibiotic in 1944, Saranac Lake’s days as a world-renowned treatment center for TB came to an end. Many of the cure cottages reverted to their original uses as single-family homes or were converted into apartment houses. Many, if not most, of them still exist, and more than 230 structures have been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Whether or not the prescribed regimen of bed rest and fresh mountain air did any good or merely acted as a placebo is debatable, but all around town the still-standing cure cottages of Saranac Lake serve as silent reminders of a dreaded disease and the entrepreneurial spirit of a town that sought to vanquish it.