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Tuberculosis doctor's stubborn vision led to Seaside

An octagonal cupola, topped by a narrow spire that tapers skyward like a blade, is the first sign that the main building at Seaside in Waterford was built for a grand purpose.

At the very top, a metal sailing ship points in whatever direction the wind is blowing. Far below, graceful arches framed in stone are set into brick walls crawling with ivy.

But in between, blank windows and concrete from a later age violate the design, as do two round towers that perch incongruously on either side, bookending the old structure like toy lighthouses. The building is a jumble, stuck between two eras as weeds rise around it.

The 20-year fight over what to do with the waterfront property, last used by the state Department of Mental Retardation in the 1990s, seems to be over. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced last year that the site would become a state park.

As the dispute fades, it's worth recalling an earlier fight, one that raged for just as long. Like the architectural details of the building, partially erased by change and neglect, the struggle that gave birth to Seaside has been obscured by time.

* * *

What brought Stephen J. Maher to Paris in the fall of 1905 wasn't the cabaret or the recent wonder called the Eiffel Tower. It was a disease.

The 45-year-old physician from New Haven had developed a specialty thanks to two events that occurred in his youth. First, his father died of the wasting ailment called consumption. Then, a German doctor identified the cause of the widespread plague as a bacterium, the tubercle bacillus.

Maher went to medical school and never married, instead devoting his life to conquering the disease, better known as tuberculosis.

At the Grand Palais on the Champs-Élysées, Maher listened as great minds from around the world spoke at the International Congress on Tuberculosis. He learned of all the latest developments in treatment but came away struck by one thing in particular.

Children with non-pulmonary forms of the disease were being cured at a surprising rate simply by living at institutions on the shore, where ocean breezes and sunshine prevailed. France had 23 such hospitals, and they were in use across Europe.

But in the United States, tuberculosis in all of its forms was a public health crisis just then being addressed. In Connecticut, the disease spread easily among sneezing, coughing factory workers and tenement dwellers. Yet there were just two places for the sick to go, private sanatoriums in Hartford and Wallingford for those able to pay.

Two years after Maher returned from Paris, the Connecticut legislature created an ad hoc commission to study the problem, and he was named a member. The group produced an 86-page report that recommended a home for indigent sufferers in each of the state's counties. Four were built, including one in Norwich that would later be known as Uncas on Thames.

A State Tuberculosis Commission was created, and Maher was soon its chairman. Once in charge, he began agitating for a place for children like the ones he had heard about in France. Nothing of the kind existed in this country, but in Europe they were common enough that a term existed to describe them.

They were called "seaside" sanatoriums.

* * *

Westbrook was the first place that presented itself as a possible location. In 1912 the commissioners found a site and approached local officials, who endorsed the idea and promised to bring it up at the next town meeting. The commission was to be invited to answer questions.

So it came as a surprise a short time later when the commissioners read the news from Westbrook in the paper. A town meeting had been held without them, and a resolution was proposed declaring the town "distinctly opposed" to hosting a sanatorium.

It passed — unanimously.

A suitable site was then found in Clinton, but before it could be bought, someone else snapped it up to keep it out of the state's hands.

What was apparently behind the opposition was fear of contagion. But if the commissioners had been allowed to make their case, they would have explained that the proposed institution was only for children with bone and glandular tuberculosis, which are not contagious.

In a report to the governor, Maher lamented what he called "the power of the summer cottager," a group that had been an obstacle in both Westbrook and Clinton. They "desire to remain ignorant of other people's suffering, or have sordid and unreasoning fears of a depreciation of their property," he wrote.

Maher, who had once been a reporter for the New Haven Register, possessed the power of the pen. Over the next few years he used it, in speeches, pamphlets and reports, to turn public opinion toward his goal.

"I feel like making a personal appeal to some wealthy son or daughter of Connecticut to build a seaside sanatorium and give it to the State to maintain," he wrote. "... It would be a new thing in Connecticut's history. But why not? It would honor the state, and it would be the sweetest service any citizen could render at this time."

* * *

No benefactor came forward, and the tuberculosis commission turned instead to the 1917 legislature. A bill to establish a children's sanatorium was proposed, and letters of support poured in from around the state. The committee on humane institutions approved it, and the idea's time had apparently come.

But in the appropriations committee, the bill caused an uproar among lawmakers from shoreline towns, and it was killed. For good measure, the committee appropriated $25,000 for a children's building at the Hartford sanatorium, as far from the shore as possible.

Maher talked the chairman into recalling the bill to remove language that specified the location. The money was far less than needed, but as he wrote, the commissioners were "satisfied that the great heart of Connecticut would not permit the meanness and injustice of the situation to last long."

The next year, they found an out-of-business summer resort called the White Beach Hotel at Crescent Beach in Niantic. Perhaps because of their experience in Clinton, they had a third party make the purchase, then resell it to them.

Within days, the summer cottagers of Crescent Beach sprang into action, denouncing the purchase through the Niantic Chamber of Commerce. When the legislature next convened, it was presented with a petition from Niantic opposing the location.

The petitioners wished to be clear that they had nothing against poor, suffering children and wanted only the best for them. But, they believed, the popular Crescent Beach was not the best place. They proposed two other sites in East Lyme, at Giants Neck and Rocky Neck, both of which the commission had already found inadequate.

Hearings were held, public accusations were traded, letters to the editor were written, and the two sides couldn't agree to disagree.

"The town committee has tried every possible way to get Dr. Maher to go to another and proper place in the town," two residents wrote in exasperation. "But no! It is 'give us White Beach, or give us death.'"

Finally, the legislature's public health and safety committee rejected the petition by a single vote. The last obstacle had been removed.

* * *

The first children moved into the White Beach Hotel — renamed "The Seaside" — in January 1920. The institution had become a reality "to the great delight of the very people who were most bitter in opposing its establishment," Maher wrote, blaming the fight on misinformation. All was now forgiven.

The treatment regimen, called "heliotherapy," was simple. It consisted of nearly constant exposure of the whole body to the sun and was a welcome alternative to surgery, the traditional route for bone and glandular tuberculosis.

Why it seemed to work was not well understood, but cure rates of 70 to 90 percent were being reported in Europe. Sunlight refracted by the ocean surface was thought to have greater intensity.

Treatments were year-round, so it became a common sight in Niantic for sun-browned children to frolic outside wearing nothing but shoes and shorts, even when the beach was covered with snow. They seemed impervious to winter.

"Even in cold weather, the preventing of sunburns causes us more anxiety than the preventing of colds," Maher wrote.

After years of struggle, his dream of a place at the shore for Connecticut's tubercular children had come true at last.

But the battle for Seaside was far from over.

Editor's note: This story is drawn from the reports of the State Tuberculosis Commission, the writings of Dr. Stephen J. Maher, the archives of The Day and other newspapers, the Connecticut State Library, information from Lew Daniels of the Westbrook Public Library, and several online sources. First of three parts.

j.ruddy@theday.com

Twitter: @jruddy64

State agencies working on a plan for the Seaside property in Waterford

State agencies planning a new state park at the site of the former Seaside Regional Center have presented three concepts for development of the property but have yet to present a master plan that would incorporate elements from the concepts.

The most expensive option called for complete restoration of all buildings on site if possible, and conversion of a building into a lodge. Another option included the possibility of demolishing all buildings.

Restoration of all the buildings to a “functional condition” and in a manner sensitive to their historical significance is possible, but only at great cost, according to preliminary findings of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., an engineering and architectural firm that was contracted to conduct a structural analysis of the site's historical buildings.

Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Dennis Schain said that if any level of use is ultimately planned for any of the structures, the planning team will order more detailed structural analyses.

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