Between 1880 and 1945, if you had tuberculosis, the prescription was Arizona.
Now Tucson's history as the tuberculosis capital of the United States may soon be preserved by the National Register of Historic Places.
The State Historic Preservation Office will review a multiple properties proposal next month that argues that the disease shaped Tucson's development. The review is the first step in getting the properties on the national register.
"A lot of what we are today as a city owes a lot of its roots to that particular disease" and the impact it had on Tucson's architecture, said Jennifer Levstik, historic preservation consultant for the city of Tucson Historic Preservation Office.
Tuberculosis, a potentially lethal bacterial disease that typically attacks the lungs, influenced how the town spread and how buildings were designed, she said. Tucson's first zoning regulations can be traced back to tuberculosis. The influx of the infected gave Arizona the population it needed for statehood.
Tucson, in particular, was "the destination" for tuberculosis, which was sometimes referred to as consumption. Between 1920 and 1930 there were more than 30 sanatoriums holding permits in Tucson, Levstik said.
In the early 1900s, tuberculosis killed one in seven people living in the U.S. and Europe.
The influx of tuberculosis patients to Tucson waned in the 1940s as scientists discovered the first of several medicines now used to treat the disease.
But before the antibiotics that became an effective treatment for tuberculosis, patients were treated in sanatoriums, where therapy included plenty of fresh air, sleep, wholesome food, and exercise.
The historic submission, if approved, paves the way for 12 Tucson properties to apply to be considered historic because of their tuberculosis connection.
Two of these properties, Tucson Medical Center and the David Owen Homestead, are being submitted with the July nomination as a test run for the dozen properties.
The David Owen Homestead is off Prince Road between Campbell Avenue and First Avenue, and is composed of four buildings from that period. It was built in the 1930s by a Pennsylvania man with tuberculosis who had retired from the railroad. He built the property for his family from salvaged materials, like street signs. Some of his measurements and notations, like grocery lists, are still written on the buildings.
TMC is nominating three buildings: the Farness Patio Building, The Erickson Building and the Arizona Building, a former nurses' residence.
The hospital started as the Desert Sanatorium in the mid-1920s. The resort-style sanatorium served elite clientele with tuberculosis, Levstik said. These patients would go on tours to dude ranches, the Grand Canyon and to the reservations.
The Desert Sanatorium was also the first medical institute in the U.S. to attempt to cure tuberculosis through "heliotherapy" - an attempt to use the sun's powerful radiation in Arizona for therapy.
The Farness Patio Building was the sanatorium's research facility. Researchers studied and prescribed sun as a way to treat tuberculosis. While many people anecdotally said the sun was curative, the Desert Sanatorium was the first to actually try and quantify the idea, Levstik explained. Since the researchers were investigating the claim, they also figured out fairly quickly that it wasn't working, she said.
Heliotherapy aside, the sanatorium's research was cutting edge, Levstik said. It was the first place to use an iron lung to treat polio.
The TMC buildings on the submission list have Hopi-inspired Pueblo Revival architecture. At the time, Navajo and Hopi artisans would come and do murals and paintings for the decor, Levstik said.
Advertisements often hyped the American Indian population's lifestyle as a reason to go to the Southwest. People boasted that American Indians were rarely sick because of their connection to nature. There was a "real romanticization" with American Indians that carried over into how buildings were designed in order to emphasize them as a place of healing, Levstik said.
The reason for the perceived fortitude, however, was partly because the population was small and relatively isolated. The disease began to spread as more sick people came and eventually American Indians in Arizona ended up as the group with the highest rate of tuberculosis in the United States, Levstik said.
The idea of keeping TMC connected to nature has continued as it has evolved, said Richard Prevallet, TMC's vice president of facilities and construction. Every patient room looks onto a patio.
"We have made conscious decisions over the years to keep a close touch on the environment because we believe that's an important aspect of healing," Prevallet said.
The Erickson Building was originally the home of Alfred and Anna Erickson, the owners of the Desert Sanatorium. It continued to influence the hospital long after the sanatorium's closure as a residence for hospital administrators.
Donald Shropshire, a former president of TMC, lived in the home from 1967 to 1992. The Erickson residence was mostly a destination for Anna Erickson, he said, since Alfred Erickson was often busy with his advertising business. The home had signs of her everywhere, Shropshire said.
"It was important for me to get a sense of feeling for the person who had been so generous to the community," he said.
After the Desert Sanatorium closed in 1943, Erickson negotiated a deal to create a community hospital under the stipulation that it would "continue the tradition of scientific research and education" that came out of the Desert Sanatorium, according to the TMC proposal. The community raised $150,000 to support the venture.
"If you're going to be a community hospital, that's a major stellar gift of philanthropy and it brands you as a community service forever," Shropshire said.
The architecture of tuberculosis played a role in Shropshire's life, as well. The Erickson Building's spacious patio allowed him to host blueberry pancake breakfasts for the officers of the board and some officers of the medical staff. This helped people connect in a way they normally wouldn't since "they got to know each other by first names and they got to talk about something besides the hospital policies," he said.
His daughter's wedding reception was held on that patio. The building is the final resting place of his son's cat, Taco.
The Desert Sanatorium was not the typical level of care for the majority of TB patients who flocked to Tucson. Many people lived in tent communities or boarding-house style sanatoriums. While these properties varied vastly in their amenities, their style is indicative of the "architecture of tuberculosis" through their use of sleeping porches and floor plans that promoted cross ventilation, Levstik said.
Bethany Barnes is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@ azstarnet.com or 573-4117.