At the beginning of the 1900s the disease that was most feared was the “White Terror” – tuberculosis. Panic gripped the nation; tuberculosis (a/k/a the “wasting disease” or “consumption”) was the single largest cause of death in the U.S. If you contracted TB it was considered to be a death sentence (1 in 7 Americans died from tuberculosis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Although the cause had been discovered in the 1880s (TB bacilli) there was no surefire real cure.
The TB sanatorium was the only answer for decades. The first one was started by Dr. Edward Trudeau* (great grandfather of “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau) in 1885 in Saranac Lake. It involved a strict regimen of rest, exercise, plentiful wholesome food and fresh air.. LOTS of fresh air.
The idea of using a similar regimen to prevent TB among children who were at greatest risk of contracting the disease was pioneered in Germany in 1904 It held hope; sorely lacking thus far, and swept across Europe and into the U.S. like wildfire. By 1908 a variation of this treatment was being used in Albany.
The first “open air school”, a make-shift operation at the South End Dispensary at the corner of Westerlo and Ash Grove Place, in the heart of the immigrant community, was opened with about 20 grade school age kids. It was operated jointly by the City’s Anti-
tuberculosis Committee and the Board of Education.
Soon the entire responsibility shifted to the Board and by 1910 another open air class room (sometimes called a “preventorium”) with about 30 kids was established in School 6 on Second St. in Arbor Hill.
In each setting the regimen was the same – lots of sunlight (thought to be a disinfectant), sufficient wholesome food (lots of milk), exercise, rest and fresh air.
Finally in 1914, when a new School 14 was opened on Trinity Place, it had a purpose-built open air school on its roof that could accommodate about 50-60 kids. There was a class room with a roof, a fixed wall and 3 walls of windows that were usually open, regardless of season or temperature. There was no heat and children wore the equivalent of snowsuits, mittens and hoots. Additionally there was a kitchen, separate dining room and shower rooms for boys and girls.
“Sitting out bags” were a thing in open air schools. The largest manufacturer in the country was Huyck Mills, just across the way in Rensselaer; the children featured in their ads were from Albany’s School 14. They were described as “brown, pliable, hairy felt-like cloth”.
A key feature was a roof terrace, off the class room; completely open except for a sheltered roof area off to the side under which were stored cots and blankets for sleeping outside on days without rain or snow. The roof terrace was described as playground far above the dust and dirt of the streets, “open to the sky and the sun with inspiring view of the Cathedral spires and the battlements of the State Capitol and City Hall tower”.
The open air classroom in School 14 was staffed by two teachers, a nurse, a matron and a cook. The day started with a visit from the school nurse followed by breakfast. Next came classwork, instruction in good health habits, a hearty lunch, exercise and then rest in the fresh air, usually in special “sitting out bags”. Monthly home visits by the school nurse were a regular part of the regimen. In summer, some children were placed at a Child’s Hospital location in Saratoga
If active cases of TB were discovered, the children were sent to the TB Sanatorium off Western Ave. (The Harriman Campus is there today). The Sanitarium was started around 1892 by Albany unions through the Central Federation of Labor and continued under the auspices of Albany Hospital (today’s Albany Medical Center).
The open air class rooms were considered to be successful and cost-effective. Children remained in the class rooms for at most 2 years before their health was deemed to have improved for their return to regular classrooms. In the 1920s another class room was added to School 14. Open air class rooms were also added in the new buildings of School 26 (Tremont St.) and School 27 (Western Ave.) when those schools were constructed in the 1920s.
By 1930 there appears to have been about 200 children in open air school class rooms scattered throughout the city school district. By this time, the class rooms were being used for children with all sorts of health conditions (not just at risk for TB) that prevented them from applying themselves to their school work.** “The aim of the open air school is to enable debilitated children to continue their education and at the same time regain their health and strength.”
In 1934 School 14 was renovated and became Philip Schuyler Sr. High School. The open air class room sizes were reduced and overcrowded. The city decided to create a standalone open-air school in Lincoln Park, using Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds available from the Federal government during the Depression. The building selected for renovations was the office of James Hall ***, which dates back to the 1850s. The facility became known as the “Sunshine School” because of the many large windows.
In the mid 1940’s. During World War II, the antibiotic streptomycin was isolated and discovered as an effective treatment for TB. (However, TB still remains the most prevalent contagious disease in the world; ¼ of the world’s population is infected with TB.)
The Sunshine School remained opened for at least another 5 decades; in its later years it was used for children with special education needs.
*Dr. Trudeau had close ties to Albany – through the Albany Medical Society and the Episcopalian Diocese.
** In the first part of the 20th century health and social reform movements swept the U.S. and continued with tenacity until World War II. These reforms were often linked and/or delivered through the education systems of cities and towns to be able to reach the highest number of children. The schools in Albany functioned as “safety nets” for at risk children.
***James Hall was the pre-eminent geologist and paleontologist in 19th-century America. He founded the State Museum and served an unprecedented six decades, holding both positions of state geologist and paleontologist.