By Gary A. Nowlan, PhD
*Much of this brief history comes from a report for the developers entitled Boulder Sanitarium, Historical Assessment, prepared in 2015 by Winter & Company. This document is available at Carnegie Library for Local History, 1125 Pine Street, Boulder, CO 80302. The library has a collection of documents about and photos of the sanitarium starting with construction in 1895. Most of this information may be accessed online at: https://boulderlibrary.org/locations/carnegie/
Perhaps referring to a building, rather a complex of structures, as a “dear old friend” is a bit dramatic. But in many ways, watching the demolition on what was once the site of the Boulder Colorado Sanitarium is like watching a loved one or a dear friend slowly die.
As I have recorded the demolition by photo and video, several especially poignant moments stand out. One of those moments occurred as I watched a large excavator crawl up to the evergreen tree standing in the middle of the circle drive at the main entrance. I could hear the cracking as the bucket of the excavator reached forward and pushed the tree over. The excavator then picked up the tree and placed it on a pile of debris. Next, the boom swung a bit and the jaws of the bucket opened and then closed around the nearby flagpole, pulled the now bent form out of the ground, and deposited it on a nearby pile of twisted metal. Even though demolition of the former hospital had been in progress for months, starting with removal of asbestos from the interior, destruction of the flagpole seemed to confirm its death was final. There was no going back.
What was to become Boulder Colorado Sanitarium* was established as a branch of Battle Creek (Michigan) Sanitarium in a house on University Hill in 1894. John Harvey Kellogg was heavily involved from the beginning. A brochure, which advertised the sanitarium in its early days, lists him as consulting physician. In 1895, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists purchased about 90 acres in and along the foothills of Western Boulder on the northwest corner of Mapleton Avenue and 4th Street. Two large 18-room houses, referred to as the West and East Cottages, were constructed that year. The main building was completed in 1896. A powerhouse, laundry, and bakery were constructed about this time. In later years, 19 small cottages, a hospital wing, a dairy barn, hen houses, a greenhouse, and an icehouse were added to the campus. The smokestack was constructed in the 1920s, replacing a series of three earlier, shorter ones. In 1930, a dormitory for nurses was built quite high up the ridge north of the sanitarium.
The nature of healthcare changed over time, requiring changes in services offered by the sanitarium. The changes were reflected when the name was changed to Boulder Memorial Hospital in about 1957. However, when my mother moved to Boulder in 1959 to work at the hospital, it was still referred to by employees and church members as “The San.” In 1989, when Memorial Hospital was sold to Boulder Community Hospital, the name became Mapleton Center, which offered primarily sports medicine and outpatient rehabilitation services. Memorial Hospital was replaced by Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville.
Fairly early in its existence, the sanitarium acquired additional land that became pasture for the dairy herd. In 1969, Memorial Hospital sold 210 acres to the City of Boulder for open space. It is one of the most heavily used areas in more than 45,000 acres of city open space. Several hiking trails traverse the former “sanitarium pasture” as we called it before it became open space. Some of the trails lead to the summit of Mt. Sanitas (6,800 feet), the name derived from “sanitarium.” A 3-acre parcel adjacent to Boulder Junior Academy, acquired by the academy as part of the sale of Boulder Memorial Hospital, was sold to Boulder for open space in 1995. The cement remains of the dairy barn are on this 3-acre parcel.
In 2014, the hospital campus was purchased by Mapleton Hill Investments, LLC, for the purpose of developing a retirement community called The Academy on Mapleton Hill. (The company owns another retirement facility in Boulder, known as The Academy, reflecting its former existence as a girls’ boarding school.) The Mapleton campus will include cottages, condominiums, a subacute rehabilitation facility, a memory care facility, and supporting buildings. The buildings that served Boulder for so many years did not fit with plans for the site. Therefore, the decision was made to demolish most of the buildings.
None of the structures on the site, when demolition began in 2019, date from the early days of sanitarium development. The oldest structures on the site in 2019 were some of those constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. Structures that will survive the demolition are the nurses’ dormitory, a white frame cottage, a flagstone cottage, the smokestack, and a stone wall that served as part of the main entrance to the sanitarium grounds in the early days.
Often as I photograph and video the demolition, people stop to observe and converse for a few minutes. “I was born there.” “My children were born there.” “My siblings were born there, and I always wished I had been born there, too.” “I swam in the therapy pool while recovering from cancer surgery.” “I worked in the physical therapy department.” These are some of the comments people make, usually with a tone of sadness. Others say they think it is such a waste to demolish the buildings.
I share their feelings of loss. Even though the original buildings from the 1890s and early 1900s have been gone for decades, the later buildings are part of the history of my family, many other families, and the Boulder Seventh-day Adventist Church. My mother moved from Nebraska to work in the hospital. I soon joined her after graduating from Union College. I married, brought my wife to Boulder, and we made it our permanent home. My sons were born there. My mother died there. Many friends and church members worked there both before and after the hospital was sold to Boulder Community Hospital. I was on the governing board in late 1988 during intense discussions about the sale. The news shocked many Boulder residents, especially the Adventist community.
The site is now nearly devoid of buildings for the first time in 125 years, which means the view of the mountains west of the church is unobstructed. That will change as development takes place over the next two or three years. The few structures that will not be demolished will be repurposed. The nurses’ dormitory will house about six condominiums overlooking the city and the plains to the east. The frame cottage will be moved and preserved because it appears identical to seven small cottages built between 1900 and 1906. The flagstone cottage will be pre- served. The smokestack will be at the center of a small park. Old photos of the campus show it was a very beautiful place. Plans indicate it will continue to be beautiful. From 1895 to about 2014, the site was dedicated to making people well. The site will now be dedicated to helping folks flourish in their retirement years.
–Gary A. Nowlan, PhD, a member of Boulder Adventist Church since the 1960s, has served as church board chair and church elder. A geologist, he worked with the U. S. Geological Survey. Email him at: [email protected]