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Seaside's move to Waterford led to a first-of-its-kind building

The project on Cass Gilbert's drawing board was possibly the most important of the architect's career, and that was saying something for a career that included three state capitols and the world's tallest building.

So when Gilbert's phone rang one morning in June 1931 with an offer of new work, he could have said he was too busy. The caller wanted to know if he was interested in designing a tuberculosis hospital. The state of Connecticut had $200,000 available.

"I said yes, if they did not expect to get too much of a building for their money, I should be willing to take the work," Gilbert wrote. "He said that they wanted something that would not be too depressingly suggestive of a hospital."

After years of warring with the McCook family for land to expand The Seaside in Niantic, the State Tuberculosis Commission had given up the fight. It started looking for a new home for the children's sanatorium.

The search was a short one. A 31-acre site at Magonk Point in Waterford, tied up in probate for two decades, had gone on the market at the right time, and the state bought it. For once, there was no fight.

A new building was needed, and it would be the first in the country designed for the treatment of bone and glandular tuberculosis.  State officials wanted a first-rate architect, and Gilbert, who lived in Ridgefield, was the man for the job. He plunged into the work with enthusiasm.

"The design of that little hospital became his sole thought until he reached his conclusion of how it was to be treated," Gilbert's wife later recalled.

He also continued to work on his other project — the new home of the United States Supreme Court.

* * *

Gilbert, 71, had designed dozens of public buildings, including the Minnesota, Arkansas and West Virginia capitols and, closer to home, the New Haven railroad station and Waterbury city hall. He pioneered the skyscraper, creating the 60-story Woolworth Building in Manhattan, for 17 years the tallest in the world.

His usual architectural languages were the Colonial and Classical Revival styles. But to create, as requested, something not drearily institutional in Waterford, he first needed to know the specific needs of the sanatorium.

Dr. John F. O'Brien, the superintendent of Seaside, was full of information about rooms and square footage and the need for central heating. But he had one idea above all.

"I hope that a 'Y' shaped building is not incompatible with architectural beauty," he wrote to Gilbert.

The architect, though wishing to be accommodating, envisioned a building with two wings projecting forward at right angles.

As planning proceeded, this difference was not resolved until Gilbert told O'Brien flatly that "I would not plan the building with flaring wings, unless so ordered by the Commission or the Governor."

O'Brien also wanted rooms to be larger than in the initial plans, to the point where the length of the building would grow by 50 feet, with a corresponding increase in cost. Gilbert discreetly inquired about what authority O'Brien had to order changes and incur expenses.

The tuberculosis commission, he was told, had the final word.

* * *

The building Gilbert designed was a departure, both for him and for institutional architecture generally. He was inspired by the style of a Norman farmhouse but adapted it for the needs of the moment.

Two wings would reach toward the shore, at right angles as Gilbert had insisted. In between, stepped terraces would provide outdoor space for the young patients to soak in the sun. There would be room for 195 children, more than triple the capacity in Niantic.

The long, south-facing structure, with a spindly cupola and diamond patterns in the bricks, didn't look anything like a hospital. It would have pink granite arches, to be quarried locally, and a tiled roof. The irregular look of different shades would be achieved by having the tiles laid by a color-blind worker.

Though it faced no opposition, the tuberculosis commission was lucky to get funding from the state's Depression-depleted treasury. Building projects were otherwise at a standstill.

But for Dr. Stephen J. Maher, chairman of the commission, that was entirely just.

"This need of a suitable Seaside sanatorium is a deferred project of every General Assembly for the last twenty years," he wrote. "Postponement and disappointment have been the answer to our prayers for help in all those long years."

Construction began in July 1932 and proceeded with the usual headaches. Torrential rain flooded the basement excavation. A lack of structural steel caused delays.  The contractor undertook an extension of the kitchen before anyone had bothered to tell the architect.

"I respectfully submit that this is an entirely unbusinesslike way of managing matters of this character," Gilbert wrote to the commission in annoyance. He then thought better of it, drew a line across the letter, and sent a more mildly worded version instead.

On June 12, 1934, as state and local officials gathered between the wings to dedicate the finished building, Maher told them, "Today marks the end of a long and arduous journey."

For Maher, the 20-year struggle now behind him had been nothing less than a contest between good and evil. He characterized those who had stood in his way as "the powers of darkness."

His heart had always been with those for whom the hospital had been built, "children with crumbling spines, with painful twisted arms and legs (and) stiffened joints."

Other speakers were full of praise for Maher's untiring efforts on behalf of those children. In the lobby, a bronze plaque was unveiled with a more lasting tribute.

The new building had been named for him.

* * *

Cass Gilbert would have been pleased to see the enthusiasm with which his sanatorium was greeted. But a month earlier, while in England, he died of a heart attack at age 74. Seaside was one of his last works.

His son, also an architect, saw the U.S. Supreme Court building through to completion, and it was dedicated the following year.

After their court triumph in 1929, which led to Seaside's move to Waterford, the McCook family enjoyed their Niantic summer home in peace. In 1953, they turned down a better offer and sold the property to the town of East Lyme. Today it is a beloved public park that includes the beach where Seaside's children once played.

Dr. Maher continued to wage war against tuberculosis for the rest of his life. Seaside had been only one front in that war.  He represented the United States at international conferences, conducted research, and put forth theories that sparked controversy.

"It's fun being a heretic," he once said, "especially when you can prove that you're right."

In 1933 he announced that he had discovered a way to destroy the tubercle bacillus, which caused the disease, but that more research was needed. Six years later, at age 79, he believed himself on the verge of a breakthrough.

But one morning before breakfast, his secretary found him at the foot of the stairs, dying of a heart attack.  His last words were, "Lift me up if you can."

At the new Seaside, barely dressed children played in the snow as they had in Niantic. But for all of the years that went into establishing the institution, it was soon overtaken by advances in medicine.

Despite apparent success stories, heliotherapy was discredited as an effective treatment for tuberculosis. After World War II, the use of antibiotics made increasing inroads against the disease, and gradually sanatoriums became unnecessary.

Seaside closed its doors in 1958. After a brief period as a geriatric hospital, it had a 35-year life as a state center for children who were, in the language of the day, mentally retarded. Its mission had changed, and alterations to the building compromised Gilbert's elegant design.

But the spirit of the mission was just as Maher had expressed it the day the place was dedicated.

"The buildings and the grounds are yours. The children are wards of yours. Visit them. Encourage them. Rejoice with them as the sunlight softens and removes the hideous tuberculous cement that had stiffened their joints and curved their spinal columns and distended their glands.

"Yes, come to them. Cheer them. Laugh with them. Love them, then you will love all mankind."

Editor's note: This story is drawn from the reports of the State Tuberculosis Commission, the writings of Dr. Stephen J. Maher, the Cass Gilbert Collection at the New-York Historical Society, papers collected by Waterford Municipal Historian Robert Nye, the archives of The Day, and several online sources. Last of three parts.

j.ruddy@theday.com

Twitter: @jruddy64

State agencies still developing a plan for Seaside

State agencies planning a new state park at the site of the former Seaside Regional Center have yet to present a master plan.

The most expensive option calls 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.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Dennis Schain has 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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