As I walked around the locked gate, past the sign that said “CLOSED TO PUBLIC VEHICLES,” down the abandoned road towards the gloomy boarded-up buildings, I wondered if I would find Waterford quite so endlessly strange if I’d grown up here. I suspect that I would think what I did of the somewhat similar suburb where I was raised: that it was about the least fascinating town in the nation. To a newcomer, however, Waterford is full of oddities, and any number of strange curiosities could be hiding behind a strip mall, or tucked away in the bend of a coastal road.
On this day, my curiosity of choice was the old Seaside Sanatorium, originally a tuberculosis hospital, now an abandoned historic property in a state of impending blight, closed off and dilapidated and awaiting its eventual sale by the State of Connecticut. I suppose if you’d known about it all your life you’d think it was just a political issue, or an interesting place to walk by the beach, or maybe a building that adventurous or bored people snuck into in search of old medical stuff and evidence of ghosts. But I, having heard of its existence only recently, found it wonderfully sinister and bizarre.
The word sanatorium made me think of European mountain villages, of 19th century literary types wasting away dramatically while carrying on doomed affairs and writing melancholy novels. Tuberculosis was “consumption,” which barely even sounds real anymore; it sounds like it exists solely in the mind of hypochondriacs in plays. But here was a real sanatorium, in southeastern Connecticut, built by noted architect Cass Gilbert (Woolworth Building, US Supreme Court) in 1934.
At that time it was believed that tuberculosis could be cured by rest, good nutrition, and fresh air, hence the prime beachfront property. While backwards compared to our current understanding of bacterial infections, it was certainly better than earlier thoughts about the disease, which held that it was caused by fairies dragging the afflicted person away for “compulsive nightly visits to the fairy mounds, so that every morning the victim returned exhausted and unrefreshed” or, less commonly, by witches who turned people to horses at night, leaving them literally “hag-ridden.” It was also far more pleasant than other early medical treatments, which included surgery to collapse one lung and let it “rest.”
I wasn’t thinking about any of that as I walked around the fog-draped buildings. I was alone, except for the seagulls overhead and a small gaggle of geese walking to and fro on an expanse of green lawn. Their honking was drowned out by the incessant crashing of the waves, and the constant battering of the cold damp wind that whipped tears from my eyes. All I was thinking about, as I wiped them away, was that this climate was more likely to give a person a respiratory illness than to cure one.
The windows were covered with plywood or broken, and there were “No Trespassing” signs posted on a few of the doors. I had read about people breaking in and discovering old papers in the halls and signs of the supernatural. I had also read that security was vigilant. I saw no signs of guards, but I did not attempt to break in. It was atmospherically creepy enough from the outside, and anyway I was far too cold to be brave.
Off to one side of the entrance was what appeared to be a tiny post-apocalyptic junkyard. There was an old traffic light on a post, a vintage electrical box of the type you sometimes see on a sidewalk by an intersection, and one of those large metal contraptions that hold up lights or road signs above the street. This had a wire dangling from it. On the lawn, between the main building and the beach, was a swing set missing its swings. It may have come later, but it reminded me that the original patients at Seaside were children.
When antibiotics began to be widely used to treat tuberculosis in the 1950s, eliminating the need for sanatoriums, Seaside became a geriatric hospital, then a home for the “mentally retarded.” It closed in 1996, amid allegations of abuse and suspicious deaths. Knowing all of that made the buildings even eerier, and the warning signs more ominous.
A little red structure like a diminutive covered bridge caught my eye. I thought children would have liked to run down the gently sloping hill and hide inside its walls. I wondered if the young patients thought this was a pretty place, this grand house with sweeping views where they were sent to live, or if it seemed foreboding even to them. I walked away, back up the drive, and turned back to see the buildings through the fog. Like the patients they had been built to accommodate, they sat waiting, either for someone to save them, or to waste away.