Paranormal Preservation at Waverly Hills Tuberculosis Sanitarium

With Halloween just one week away, I’ve had the spooky and ghoulish on my mind. Ghost stories and historic places seem to go hand in hand, but when I think of creepy places, the Waverly Hills TB Sanitarium in Louisville, Kentucky is always number one on my list! Allegedly, it is one of the most haunted places in the United States.

 

The Waverly Hills Tuberculosis Sanitarium is situated on the top of a  secluded wooded hill off of Dixie Highway.  It operated as a tuberculosis hospital for fifty years before medical advancements rendered it obsolete. It then operated as a geriatric facility before being closed by the state in the early 1980s. Historically speaking, the sanitarium is an excellent example of the work of three prominent Revivalist architects in Louisville and improvements in public health.  But it is (in)famous because it is supposedly brimming with paranormal activity and is open to the public for ghost tours and the like.

In 1907, Kentucky and Tennessee had higher mortality rates from tuberculosis than any other state.  Citizens implored the local and state governments to build a hospital to properly treat and cure patients affected by Tuberculosis away from the general public.  It was believed that the treatment of tuberculosis patients at the City Hospital resulted in the spread of the disease to patients admitted for other ailments.

The site for the sanitarium was chosen by the Board of Tuberculosis Hospital for its isolation and convenience.  It was located six miles from town directly on 18th Street and the Illinois Central Railroad, with steam and electric line stations immediately adjoining the property.

In 1909 construction began using funds raised by taxes levied by the city and county. The first building was a Tudor style two-story frame building, with a hipped roof and half-timbering designed by J.J. Gaffney. It could safely accommodate 40-50 patients and opened in 1910.

By the early 1920s, the building proved to be inadequate for the number of patients seen by the sanitarium.  In 1922, Arthur Loomis  was chosen to design new buildings and in 1924 the firm of D.X. Murphy and Bro. was selected to assist in their design and construction. In 1926, the main building was opened. It is a four-story brick and stone collegiate Gothic building with a curved plan and a square tower above the entrance. There is a three-bay Gothic-arched entrance porch. About two years later, a two and one-half story brick structure with half-timber work was completed near the main building. By this time, the facility could accommodate 400-500 patients from infants to adults. Playground equipment, a library, and school curriculum were implemented to accommodate the younger patients. Beginning in the 1920s, African Americans were treated at Waverly in a separate wing. Dr. Jesse Bell was one of the first African American physicians to work at the hospital. He would go on to be the first African American to serve on the University of Louisville Board of Overseers in 1965.

Waverly Hills was nationally recognized for its treatment of tuberculosis. The Waverly Hills complex was self-sufficient. Doctors and nurses and their families lived on the premises. There were facilities for Catholic and Protestant services. And a farm and grocery for the patients were also located on site.  It was featured in the film On the Firing Line which documented advancements in tuberculosis treatments.  Fresh air, bed rest, good nutrition, heliotherapy and sunlamps, pneumothorax and thoracoplasty were central to Waverly’s tuberculosis treatment plan, as was the upkeep of morale. The sanitarium offered occupational therapy (including basket weaving and typing classes). And radio receptacles were provided between each set of solarium doors, installed by William J.Jordan who operated local radio station 9LK. Patients plugged in headphones to listen to their favorite stations at these receptacles .

The so-called “death tunnel” or “death chute” in 2007. Image via Rie Sadler.

One of the sanitariums most notable features is the 500 foot long concrete tunnel that runs from the main building to the bottom of the hill.  Built in 1926 when the main building was constructed, the tunnel was intended as safe way for staff to enter and exit the facility without having to climb the steep hill and as a convenient way to transport supplies to the facility.  One side of the tunnel had stairs, the other side had a rail and motorized cart which moved materials to and from the building. At the height of the TB epidemic, the tunnel was used to discreetly remove bodies from the facility. It was believed that if living patients saw the removal of the bodies it would be demoralizing and lead to more deaths.  The number of bodies that moved through the tunnel is often inflated.

By 1961, the drug streptomycin lessened the public health threat of tuberculosis and the Waverly Hills facility was closed.  The Kentucky Geriatrics Foundation leased the Waverly Hills site in 1962 to house an elder care facility, Woodhaven Medical Services.  Renovations were undertaken at the time by Luckett and Farley, Inc. Architects.  Woodhaven was closed by the state in 1980. A golf course and county park were developed on part of the Waverly Hills property.  Remaining property was been parceled and sold to developers .

Photograph of a female phantom. Image via ermaktravel.com

Today, Waverly Hills is a South End tourist attraction that has garnered national and international attention. Each year, the remaining buildings are transformed into a haunted house and tours of the facility can be scheduled through Waverly Hills Historical Society Inc.  Most tourists are drawn to the site because it is reported to be one of the most haunted placed in America. Along with tours, ghost hunts are available through the historical society.  The facility has been featured on Most Haunted, Celebrity Paranormal Project, The Simpsons, Ghost Adventures, and a 2006 Australian documentary, Spooked: The Ghosts of Waverly Hills Sanatorium, as well as other television programs and movies.  Profits generated by the haunted house, ghost and historical tours, and filming permits go toward the renovation of the deteriorating facility.

The deteriorating sun porch at night. Image via ermaktravel.com

An adaptive reuse plan was developed to convert the former hospital into a four star hotel at a cost of $18 million.  At this time, it unclear if those plans will go forward.

The Waverly Hills Sanitarium is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

* All images via the University of Louisville Digital Collection unless otherwise noted.

** For ghost stories and ghoulish tales set at the sanitarium and more photos, check out ermaktravel.com

***This post was adapted from a technical report I prepared as an intern.  The bibliography for the report follows (just in case you want to do some further reading – the place is really fascinating, I swear!)

Kleber, John E.

2011    The Encyclopedia of Louisville. University of Kentucky Press, Lexington.

1992    The Encyclopedia of Louisville. University of Kentucky Press, Lexington.

National Register of Historic Places Forms

1979    Waverly Hills Tuberculosis. Frankfort, Kentucky.

The Board of Tuberculosis Hospital

1907    Letter on file, Filson Historical Society, Louisville.

The Waverly Hill Historical Society

2011    The Waverly Hills Sanitarium, http://www.therealwaverlyhills.com/

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4 comments

  1. leavingcelestia

    Hey there! I love that you covered Waverly Hills… I worked on a ghost hunting TV show a few years back, and that is one of only a couple places where I had a weird experience. The old sanatorium is one creepy place, especially when walking through there alone in the middle of the night armed with only a small flashlight. I knew a little bit about the history already, from my time there, so thanks for sharing so much more! The radio receptacle part was really interesting… I never knew anything about that.

  2. bricksandmortarpreservation

    Thanks! I’ve never actually been to the sanitarium, but I’d really like to see it. The history of the facility is equally as interesting as the ghost stories I’ve heard. However, I’ve read so much about its haunting that I’m not sure I could handle it. The hair stands up on the back of my neck just thinking about being there at night!!!

  3. Pingback: B+M Is One! | Bricks + Mortar

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