The historic cure cottages of Saranac Lake

Published: June 24, 2020

Men on Cure Chairs on Cure Porch Photo courtesy of the Historic Saranac Lake Collection

When an earlier pandemic ravaged the United States, treatment was sought on specially designed porches of cottages, known as cure cottages.

In the late 1800s, Dr. Edward Livingstone Trudeau knew that fresh air and a cottage porch wouldn’t cure tuberculosis but it was nonetheless the best prescription he had.

Dr. Trudeau, a resident of New York City, was infected with tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his brother, when he decided to retreat to the natural beauty of the Saranac Lake region in upstate New York, which he was familiar with from his youth. He believed he was going to die there. But when he began to slowly recover from TB, in 1884, he established a treatment center for other TB sufferers, dubbed the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium. 

Cottage sanitarium
Photo courtesy of the Historic Saranac Lake Collection

Treatment consisted of fresh air, good food, moderate exercise, and plenty of rest. The theory was that a rested immune system could better fight off TB.

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The sanitarium was so popular, and tuberculosis so rampant—in the late 1800s, roughly one in seven people were dying of it—people flocked to Saranac Lake from across the country.

Wartime hospital cottage

The facility grew in size but could never keep up with demand so the 5,000 residents of Saranac lake stepped up, says Amy Catania, executive director of Historic Saranac Lake, by creating “cure cottages.” A cure cottage is recognizable by its porch, says Catania. Some were grand, others modest, but pretty much all were glassed in, with sliding windows, to allow patients to convalesce throughout the year, even sleeping on the porches.

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Photo courtesy of the Historic Saranac Lake Collection

The rise of antibiotics in the 1950s effectively eradicated tuberculosis in North America, though there remain occasional outbreaks. 

In 1964, the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium was reinvented as an infectious disease research facility called the Trudeau Institute, which is currently conducting research into COVID-19. 

Photo courtesy of the Historic Saranac Lake Collection

In 1980, Historic Saranac Lake decided to document this part of the region’s history and took an inventory of cure cottages in the area, determining at least 700. 

And in 2020, relegated to our homes by this new pandemic, porches offer not a cure necessarily but a chance to gather and commune and hope for relief.

Photo courtesy of the Historic Saranac Lake Collection

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