A postcard depicting the elegant grounds of the North Shore Health Resort on Sheridan Road.

Curator’s Corner: The Early Days of the North Shore Health Resort (1900s-1930s)

Appeared in the Gazette, Spring/Summer 2020

by Rachel Ramirez

“Come and Get Well,” calls a 1918 advertisement for the North Shore Health Resort from the Chicago Daily Tribune. The ad, under the “Health Resorts” section of the classifieds, lauds the facility’s “Scientific care combined with ideal surroundings,” “beautiful grounds,” and a “bathing beach.”

Established in 1901, the North Shore Health Resort (NSHR) was founded by a German émigré by the name of Dr. I.H. Hirschfeld. The resort, originally more of a sanitarium than a hospital, was a place “for rest and convalescence,” a beautiful retreat on the lake to recover from both physical ailments: “rheumatism, digestive disorders, heart disease,” and mental conditions: “recuperation from worry, overwork, and nervousness.”

Nurses and patients rocked and chatted on the porch, which featured an expansive view of Lake Michigan.

The red brick building stood grand at 225 Sheridan Road. It had plenty of windows and a tower on one side topped by a gazebo-like structure. Many images of the North Shore Health Resort exist from this early period, particularly in the form of Real Photo Postcards.

In one scene, large rocking chairs are lined up along the deck while patients and nurses sit together, relaxing in a three-season porch. In other postcards, horse drawn carriages or cars wait outside. Women and men amble down the sidewalk, with pleasant greenery and foliage all around them.

But the peaceful, almost dreamy image conveyed in advertising and postcards are not echoed by newspaper accounts of the time. While a lakeside spot certainly would be a beautiful place to recuperate, it is perhaps not the safest.

In 1906, a woman named Sarah Morris died while a patient at the resort, her body found near the lake. When questioned about why Morris had been left alone, NSHR staff argued it was likely an accident caused by her health condition. She had been staying for heart disease, not “mental disorder or melancholia.” Dr. Hirschfeld said to the Tribune, “We take no patients who require constant watching.”

Over the next three decades, the facility continued to maintain a reputation for excellent care, but the “constant watching” was always an issue. For example, the essay “Big Quiet from Winnetka” (in WHS collections) written by William Webster Garman, tells the story of the writer’s grandmother, Hazel Hartzell Royer. Garman says that Royer had an undiagnosed mental illness off and on during the 1920s and was checked in to the private sanitarium in 1933. One day in December, about a month into her stay, Royer slipped away from her nurse and went to the lake, where she drowned. Garman says that he wrote the essay because his family hid the fact that his grandmother died by suicide. He didn’t discover her full story until 1990.

The newspapers reported other deaths that happened at the facility over the years, some accidental and some not. Without a doubt other patients were treated and moved on without incident, and their stories didn’t make the news. One such patient was a young man named Theron Kline. Recently, one of his descendants came to me asking if I could find anything about this man she knew so little about. All she knew was that he had checked into the NSHR in June of 1929, and didn’t stay for long.

I was unable to find out more about Theron’s stay. This got me thinking – where are the records
of these early patients? In 1968, the facility, by that time renamed the North Shore Hospital, closed. What happened to any paper trail remains a mystery. If the records weren’t given to another institution, the private hospital was probably not required to keep them longer than 10 years after the last visit—by today’s regulations anyway. It’s possible they were more lax in the 1960s.

As a historian, it is somewhat troubling to contemplate the threads of these stories being snipped off, but whether records were destroyed institutionally or details quieted by grieving family members, I am always reminded of the personal and emotional side of telling history. How deeply research can go is determined by the record that remains, and when it comes to issues of mental health, it is perhaps not surprising that we get our story from postcards, newspapers, and curious relatives in later generations— those who just needed to know.

Today, the pleasant, grassy area overlooking the lake at Centennial Park still does have it all, those “ideal surroundings,” advertised in the early 1900s. The pretty spot gives little in the way of clues to its other past, which is why I hope we all keep digging and remembering the places that came before.

This article only discusses the earliest decades of the North Shore Health Resort. If you’d like to learn about how the land became park space, read “Centennial Park: Settlers, Sanitarium and Open Space” by Susan Whitcomb at winnetkahistory.org.

This is a final column by former WHS Curator, Rachel Ramirez, who is now the new Curator at the Wilmette Historical Museum.■

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply