One hundred and one years ago, noted architect John Gaw Meem arrived in Santa Fe, sick with tuberculosis. He was one of many thousands of “lungers” who came to heal in the City Different’s high desert climate during the first few decades of the 20th century. Meem paid for accommodations at the private Sunmount Sanatorium, where he slept with the windows open and spent long, sun-filled days outside, even in winter.
Located on Santa Fe’s northeast side, Sunmount Sanatorium is now the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has owned it since after World War II, and now the church is selling the property in bankruptcy proceedings. The potential buyers include the Mighty Union hospitality company of Austin, Texas, which would open a low-key luxury hotel, and Modern Elder Academy, which would provide workshops for people in middle age. Because the property isn’t listed on any national, state, or city historic register, the integrity of the original Sunmount buildings could be in jeopardy.
“From an architectural perspective, Sunmount is one of the earliest examples of Santa Fe-style architecture. Many of the original features in the ceilings and interiors are in original condition and should be preserved,” says Ken Stilwell, chair of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation. “From the historical perspective, Sunmount and other sanatoriums provided relief to the ‘health seekers’ who became instrumental in expanding the cultural landscape of New Mexico, and eventual statehood.”
Sunmount Sanatorium operated from the early 1900s until 1937, when the Great Depression slowed the flow of out-of-state patients. For almost two generations, Sunmount was the preferred destination of artists, writers, and intellectuals who’d contracted tuberculosis. Some who came to Sunmount, like Meem, fell in love with the city and called it home. For better or worse, the lungers’ presence changed the face of Santa Fe, and its influence is still felt today.
The Sanatorium Different
Pulmonary tuberculosis is a bacterial infection of the lungs that killed millions all over the world, before a streptomycin was made available in 1949. The disease’s spread is controlled now, but according to the World Health Organization’s website, 1.4 million people died from tuberculosis in 2019. Worldwide, it persists as one of the top 10 causes of death. Before effective medication, the prescribed treatment was a minimum of nine months’ rest, and a diet meant to fatten you up.
“You have to eat tons of nourishing food at all times. A glass of sherry with an egg in it,” for example, says Nancy Owen Lewis, author of Chasing the Cure in New Mexico: Tuberculosis and the Quest for Health (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2016). “These are people with no appetite, so this is a horrible punishment. And you have to maintain a positive attitude. If you’re feeling blue, they’d say, at least feel bright blue.”
Lewis is a scholar-in-residence at the School for Advanced Research and director of the board of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation. She tells the story of Sunmount during a recent walk-through of the original hospital administration building (now called the Santa Maria building). The two-story building contains a dining hall, a social room, offices, and patient rooms. Unlike many vintage adobe structures, it’s in good repair. The front courtyard is lined by a portal, under which is without rocking chairs. One might expect the air inside to be heavy with old ghosts — or, at least, mildew. But after a year closed for the pandemic, with no conferences scheduled, there’s only a slight mustiness. The light is lovely, neither too bright nor too shadowy. From the windows, the mountains appear almost close enough to touch.
At the turn of the 20th century, “Sanatoriums and such facilities are starting to pop up,” Lewis says. “There’s the St. Vincent Sanatorium, built in 1883, but it burns down in 1896. In 1902, you get two businessmen — one from Albuquerque, and one from Santa Fe — who establish a tent city. Living in a tent is thought to be very therapeutic, but there’s no doctor or anything like that. In 1906, it goes out of business.”
Also in 1902, a Michigan physician named Frank E. Mera contracted tuberculosis and went to heal on a ranch in Las Vegas, New Mexico. At the time, experts recommended a rugged lifestyle of hiking and roping calves to build up the body’s defenses. “This almost killed him,” Lewis says. “We didn’t have a lot of facilities in New Mexico then, so he went to Colorado, and he healed. Then he wanted to start his own sanatorium. He comes to Santa Fe in 1906, just as the tent city is going under. He buys it, shores up the tents, and builds cottages.”
Sunmount opened in slightly ramshackle fashion later that year. Next, Mera built the hospital ward, known as the administration building, for acutely sick patients who needed the most care.
Lewis spreads old photographs and documents on a round table in a big room for socializing and activities that was called the living room. A large fireplace takes up most of one wall. The floor is black tile in some places and black-and-white checkerboard elsewhere, an interesting contrast to the ceiling beams, which are carved and painted with Southwest-style details. Lewis finds a rate sheet for 1920, which reveals that a patient could stay in a room with a sleeping porch for $35 a week. Private patient suites in the administration building were $40 to $60 a week, and tray service for those confined to bed cost an additional $5. In today’s money, a week at Sunmount costs about $460 to $675.
“They advertised Sunmount as the Sanatorium Different,” Lewis says, which is a play on Santa Fe’s nickname, the City Different. “It attracted artists and writers, not just as patients, but as presenters. People would come to visit their friends and give lectures. They called it the Sunmount Salon. Witter Bynner came to visit the poet Alice Corbin [in 1922], and he did a big poetry reading.”
Among the many artists who came to Santa Fe with tuberculosis was Will Shuster, who moved to town permanently and later created Santa Fe’s annual tradition of burning an enormous puppet called Zozobra. “From what I understand, he might have been in Sunmount for a very short time, but he didn’t want to be in a place with all the sick people, so he checked himself out. I have only one reference to that,” Lewis says. “Instead, he decided to hike himself to death. He hiked and hiked, and he lived.”
Chasing the cure, spreading disease
Santa Fe’s potential as a healing destination went beyond the environmental aesthetics that have always attracted artists. Local doctors believed that the bacillus that caused tuberculosis couldn’t survive at high altitudes. Anything over 5,000 feet above sea level was curative, they insisted, even though they had no medical proof. In the 19th century, when the disease was thought to be hereditary, rather than communicable, doctors also extrapolated that Native Americans and Hispanics were most likely immune. “But evidence suggests that tuberculosis was already a serious problem among the Mescalero Apache in Southern New Mexico,” Lewis writes in Chasing the Cure.
Health seekers were arriving in droves just as New Mexico was trying to achieve statehood. Lewis says that there was a sense among local politicians that the federal government considered the population too foreign and that more Anglos could alter the demographics. Sick as they were, White residents of private Sanatoriums fit the bill. Lewis writes that after statehood in 1912, only wealthy out-of-state lungers were welcome in New Mexico. “Poor lungers were told to stay home. A note of fear had entered the mix, much of it centered on the indigent health seeker, who was increasingly viewed as an economic liability and source of contagion.”
Anyone could catch and pass the disease, and later medical evidence would suggest that while rest was key to recovery, altitude was irrelevant. But, armed with a host of false information, artists and wealthy elites flocked West in search of restful creativity, even as other states were beginning to restrict such relocation. “We brought tons of very talented, smart people [to Santa Fe],” Lewis says. “The bad thing was that they spread the disease to the locals.”
New Mexico was the last state in the country to establish a board of health, in 1919. And Lewis says that no public health facilities were available for local residents with tuberculosis until the 1930s. “We’re claiming we were so healthy, but doctors are seeing huge numbers of cases, especially in children. By 1929, when we can finally provide enough statistics, we have the second-highest TB rate in the country.”
St. Vincent Sanatorium reopened in 1910. The private Catholic hospital’s Palace Avenue location was considered urban, while the secular Sunmount was more rural. Today, the two locations are about five minutes apart by car. (Meem designed a new hospital that went up next to St. Vincent Sanatorium in 1953. The hospital relocated to St. Michael’s Drive in the 1970s, and the original property is now the Drury Hotel.)
“The list of renowned patients who chased the cure at Sunmount Sanatorium includes silversmith Frank Patania, artist Datus Myers, and Dorothy McKibbin, gatekeeper for the Manhattan Project,” Lewis writes. Sunmount patients put on plays, wrote books, and painted in their own studios. Some of those who remained in Santa Fe went on to leadership positions in medicine, education, and politics, as well as the arts. And one of them cemented Santa Fe’s overarching — and internationally renowned — architectural style.
Although he’s considered the father of the Pueblo Revival style, Meem wasn’t even an architect when he arrived at Sunmount in 1920; he was an engineer. The story he told people was that he walked out of a New York City doctor’s office with a list of Sanatoriums in far-away locales. “He looked up, and the sun was setting on this Santa Fe railroad sign. So, he decided to come to Santa Fe,” Lewis says. She points to a picture of a horse-drawn carriage climbing the side of a hill and explains that Mera rewarded patients who gained weight with field trips around Northern New Mexico. On one such excursion, Meem saw Franciscan missions and decided to change careers in order to design buildings in Santa Fe. His first studio was in a Sunmount cottage.
When Sunmount closed in 1937, Meem and Mera went into business together and reopened it as a luxury hotel, the Santa Fe Inn. But the short-lived endeavor closed in just a few years. During World War II, the military leased the hotel as an annex to the overcrowded Bruns Army Hospital, located on the other side of town. In 1946, the Catholic Church leased the property for use as a seminary and monastery. The seminary closed in 1998, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center opened. The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops operate out of the center, and the chapel the archdiocese built is a concert venue for the New Mexico Performing Arts Society. Since the 1940s, the property has also been home to the Carmelite Monastery, a cloistered order of nuns that could be affected by the sale of the property.
“Their presence has always been wonderful. They reinforce the atmosphere of healing and spirituality,” says Jeff Snodgrass, who has been director of the retreat center since 2010. “They’ve been here 75 years, so I hope the new owners give them their privacy and respect.”
Snodgrass knows the old buildings better than most. He says that despite the serious illness that once pervaded the place, he’s never seen a ghost or felt a negative presence. “I’ve heard a few stories from the catering staff about seeing an old man in the hallway, early in the mornings. But all I ever feel is a calm, peaceful energy.” ◀