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Ahead of its demolition next week, a look back at the history of Whispering Pines

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For nearly a century, a great rambling brick building has stood on a hill overlooking Coffeen Street, watching Jefferson County change.

Opened in 1917, the Jefferson County Sanatorium was created to care for tuberculosis patients.

Two days before the sanatorium joined the area’s other nascent hospitals, the Watertown Daily Times celebrated its advent by boasting, “One can take their choice of diseases and have a place to go to have them attended to.”

Now, a few days shy of its 97th birthday, that building is scheduled to be demolished early next week.

Over the years, it has filled various roles as a tuberculosis sanatorium, a polio hospital, a quarantine building for scarlet fever sufferers and a facility for low-income elderly residents.

As diverse as its uses are the names the facility has been called during its ever-changing existence: the sanatorium was rechristened the Jefferson County Home for the Aged in the early 1960s and later became known as Whispering Pines.

In the early days it was colloquially called “The San” — a word and a warning used by parents as a motivational tool to encourage children to practice good hygiene.

Its presence, however protean, has been a unique — if often morbid — feature of Jefferson County.

It is mentioned, along with several other hallmarks of north country life, in Frederick Exley’s 1968 novel “A Fan’s Notes.”

Mr. Exley’s father, Earl, a sports star and famous local figure, died of lung disease in the sanatorium in 1945.

“When, hope exhausted, she finally brought my father home from Ray Brook at Saranac Lake to die, he was placed in the Jefferson County Sanatorium, a lovely hospital with sweeping, tree-shaded lawns at the top of Coffeen Street hill in Watertown,” Mr. Exley wrote.

No less picturesque at the end of its more than nine-decade life, the building sits vacant at the entrance to the bustling Jefferson Community College campus, hollowed out and whipped by frigid north country winds as it waits for the wrecking ball.

Unlike the converted mansions, palatial homes and historic retail locations in and around downtown Watertown, the building is believed to have outlived its usefulness; its demolition is seen as a prelude to a new age of care.

But the story of the Jefferson County Sanatorium, or the Jefferson County Home for the Aged, or Whispering Pines, or “The San,” or whatever you may call it, is a story of the diseases of the 20th century — diseases that were once unknown, then thought to be incurable and finally, in some cases, cured.

A leading cause of death at the turn of the century, tuberculosis has largely disappeared from the United States, though it continues to be a leading killer of young adults throughout the world, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In upstate New York in 1907, the death toll from tuberculosis was 152.8 per 100,000 people.

In 2010, the rate was 3.6 per 100,000 across the entire U.S.

In 1909, Supervisor Warren A. Rogers of the town of Pamelia introduced a resolution to form a committee that would begin investigating the establishment of a hospital for “consumptives,” as tuberculosis patients were known.

Jefferson County had averaged 64 deaths a year from tuberculosis over the preceding 10 years and, since the disease was acknowledged to be “communicable, preventable and curable,” a county-sponsored effort was needed to help eliminate the disease, the hospital’s supporters said.

The process was slow going. Financing, siting and construction details had to be worked out, and it wasn’t until 1917 that the hospital finally opened.

An editorial about the hospital in 1912 made an unfortunate comparison between tuberculosis patients and criminals: “Cost cannot be considered when a matter of this sort is up for settlement. Tuberculosis victims are endangering the community and the county must take some provision to take care of them just as it makes provision to take care of its criminals.”

Though the next sentence softens the blow, the tone of the comparison speaks volumes about the fear of tuberculosis at the turn of the century.

“The two are by no means in the same class. The one class is a victim of natural circumstances and the other is a victim of circumstances which it has created itself. But each must be cared for to protect the rest of the community, and the protection is bound to cost something,” the editorial continues.

In 1914, after touring several facilities around the state, including three county sanatoriums and two private institutions, the building committee of the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors recommended the construction of a facility that could house at least 40 patients at a cost of about $1,000 per bed. The county already had set aside $15,000 for the hospital. The building committee recommended an appropriation of an additional $25,000 to build a facility of appropriate size.

Construction on the building was completed Jan. 22, 1917. It was inspected Jan. 23 and opened later that year with room for 36 patients.

The board of managers of the hospital apparently found the facility in good condition upon inspection.

According to a newspaper account of the visit, “The building, constructed of brick, impresses one in the beginning as being comfortable, airy, well lighted and commodious. These impressions are further confirmed as the interior of the sanitorium is inspected.”

“The Jefferson county hospital will be one of the best of its type in the state,” another account said.

More beds were added in 1930 and 1931 before the tuberculosis clinic was closed in 1957.

The county treated polio victims, quarantined patients with scarlet fever and continued to maintain a hospital for chronic diseases at the site, which remained open as an extended care facility until 1973.

In 1963, the county converted the facility into an assisted living center for low-income elderly residents.

The building continued operating in that capacity until the last of those residents moved out in April. Many of them were transferred to the brand-new Samaritan Summit Village facility on Summit Drive off Washington Street, adjacent to the Samaritan Medical Plaza — a facility that also has been described as without equal in the state of New York.

To demolish the building, Jefferson County has set aside $250,000 — 10 times what it cost to build the facility in the first place.

The contract for the project was awarded to Diversified Construction Services, Syracuse, in November at a bid of $188,000.

To bring the building up to code would be prohibitively expensive, according to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

Instead, the site, where some snow-covered pine trees still stand, will find new life here soon after the turn of the 21st century when it is turned over to JCC. Though an uncertain fate awaits it — plans for a $44.5 million multipurpose facility have been floated, though not confirmed — its history, marked by both suffering and compassion, will remain long after the last brick falls.

TB DEATHS IN JEFFERSON COUNTY IN THE EARLY 1900S
The following are the number of deaths from tuberculosis over a seven-year period in municipalities across Jefferson County. This list was printed in the Watertown Daily Times in 1914.
Watertown (city)174
Adams17
Alexandria22
Antwerp18
Brownville20
Cape Vincent9
Carthage20
Champion12
Clayton28
Ellisburg20
Henderson6
Hounsfield11
LeRay11
Lyme7
Orleans13
Pamelia13
Philadelphia7
Rodman7
Rutland10
Theresa11
Watertown (town)6
Wilna5
Worth3
Lorraine6

Total for 7 years451
Annual average 65
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