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Landmarks & Legends: The Laurel Sanitarium

In the early 1900s, Laurel was the home of a major sanitarium meant for treating those with mental illness, TB and alcohol and drug addictions.

North Carolina artist Kenneth Eugene  grew up in Laurel Maryland near the Laurel Sanitarium. Kenneth Eugene Peters’ home was on a street bound by the sanitarium’s grounds. Years later, the area would become the Laurel Shopping Center.

The Laurel Sanitarium was built in 1905 by owners and physicians Dr. Jesse C. Coggins and Dr. Cornelius DeWeese. The facility was built on a 163-acre farm charged with caring for those with compromised nervous diseases, mental diseases, alcohol and drug addiction. A central administration building joined together the five buildings that housed the female and male patients.

According to the website Asylum Projects, one building that housed females was three stories with 30 bedrooms, five bathrooms, three parlors, porches, a library and a music room. This building was annexed to another small building with just 14 bedrooms meant to house female patients.

The main facility that housed the men has a rich history. In 1911, the Brewster Park Hotel  moved to the site, but this was not an ordinary hotel.

During the early 1900s, Dr. Leslie Keeley had pioneered the concept that alcoholism and drug addiction were not inherited diseases. Instead, Keeley believed in a “gold cure” that was applied over a two-week period for $25 at Brewster Park Hotel, then located at Fifth Street and Carroll Ave.

Keeley’s concept was found to be fraudulent. Nonetheless, Dr. Florence Brewster, one of the first female surgeons in the Baltimore area, as well as one first women to graduate form Johns Hopkins University, bought  Brewster Park Hotel in 1906 to use as an addiction treatment center. The business failed, and Brewster Park Hotel would find a new home on the grounds of the Laurel Sanitarium.

In 1911, the building was physically moved by men using mules and greased logs, from it’s 5th street location to the Laurel Sanitarium site. At the time, the Baltimore Sun called the move “the largest house move ever attempted in Maryland.”

The former hotel became the site of the Laurel Sanitarium’s main men’s facility. It contained 36 bedrooms, as well as bowling alleys, exercise machines, billiards tables and a shuffle-board machine. It, too, had an annex. This one had a hydrotherapeutic room with shower baths and massage tables.

Another bungalow, a mere one-story building, held six residential rooms a bathroom and a sun room. The bungalow, a one-story frame structure, has six rooms, one bathroom and a sun parlor.

All of these were connected by a three-story, central administration building. This building was meant for basic offices, records, a central kitchen, five dining rooms, an examination room and a “a drug room” (according to the Asylum Projects website). It, too, had bedrooms. The administration building was once the home of Stephen Gambrill.

When the centered was in full operation, nurses were housed on the third floor of the various buildings. A watchman patrolled the grounds during the night.

Day-to-day life at the sanitarium included classes. Women were taught needle work and basketmaking, while the men learned gardening, painting and road making. In addition to billiards and bowling indoors, patients could play tennis or croquet outdoors.

The farm surrounding the sanitarium comprises 163 acres, which is laid out in walks, lawns, garden and fields; the table is supplied from the herd, poultry yards and garden belonging to the institution.

According to former Laurel resident and artist Kenneth Eugene Peters, in 1964 officials conducted a “controlled burn” of the facility. Peters remembers sitting in his front yard with his family, watching as each structure was set ablaze. After that, the crumbling remains sat for six years.

Peters and his sister loved to ride their bikes on the site, up and down the old driveways to explore the decaying buildings. They made up “creepy stories about what might have taken place behind its walls,” according to Peters.

In 1970, what remained on the grounds of the sanitarium was finally bull-dozed. A large department store, then several other stores followed on the newly-leveled site. Over the years several apartments and housing complexes were constructed nearby. Today, nothing remains that would ever indicate that the Laurel Sanitarium existed.

In 1991, artist Peters used his recollections and imagination of his childhood days exploring the Laurel Sanitarium site to create “Ruins of the Old Laurel Sanitarium,” an oil on stretched canvas that 18 x 24 inches. The actual artwork features the remains of the main building on the grounds of the sanitarium. 

FYI: Dave Barry wrote a column for "the New York Times," describing scenes of Americana. In 2007, he featured Route. 1 in Laurel which included info on the Santitarium as well as sites nearby.

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