When standing on the steps of the tattered yet still elaborate Union Printers Home, it’s easy to imagine the grand scene from May 12, 1892. It was opening day for the complex, which would house retirees in the main building and tuberculosis patients in the hospital.
“A magnificent street parade,” announced The Gazette. “Over 10,000 people march or line the streets.” This opening was, no doubt, a big deal. At the time, fewer than 18,000 resided in El Paso County.
The Colorado Springs band performed along with a cowboy band from Pueblo while crowds examined one of the most impressive structures in the Rocky Mountain region. Constructed of white lava stone with red sandstone trimmings, the main building cost $60,000, the equivalent of $1.7 million in 2020. In 1892, this complex on the corner of Union Boulevard and Pikes Peak Avenue was a mile from the rest of the city.
That’s a clear view from the past.
The future is blurry.
In recent years, the main building has operated as a nursing home. On Feb. 3, according to the El Paso Coroner’s Office, resident Margarita Sam was found dead at the facility. She was discovered, according to KRDO, frozen on a bench.
The state announced this week all residents will be moved to new housing. The facility, according to Medicare.gov, had been given one star out of five for its health inspection rating, or “much below average.”
I hope the main building remains. It’s a rare and elegant reminder of a vastly smaller and different Colorado Springs.
At first, The Union Printers Home looked on its way to Austin and then to the outskirts of Denver, but Colorado Springs resident Louis Ehrich took a strong proposal to the union. City leaders, he said, would offer land if the union promised to build a facility that cost at least $20,000 to construct.
At the time, Colorado Springs pitched itself as “The City of Sunshine” and the perfect place to get well. It needed a slogan. The Springs was struggling, and failing, to keep pace with Pueblo, a thriving city of steel mills and industry.
“For a town that was founded without a core industry, health became a core industry,” says Matt Mayberry, director of The Pioneers Museum. “From the 1880s to World War II, health was the major driver of economy, a reason for people to come here.”
Fighting tuberculosis seemed to forever remain a tragic growth industry. TB is a forgotten scourge, but it once terrified the world.
According to PBS, at the start of the 19th century, tuberculosis—or consumption—had killed one in seven of all people who ever lived. Mimi in the opera “La Boheme” and Fantine in “Les Miserables” are doomed by TB. It seemed a forever disease.
The Printers Home grew into a thriving TB battleground with a 200-acre wheat farm, vegetable gardens, chickens, dozens of cattle and six horses. Ornamental gardens and manicured lawns decorated the property. On the grounds, dozens of small huts gave small living spaces and sanctuaries of rest and privacy to TB patients.
The Springs was a city filled with TB sanitariums that preached rest, exposure to fresh air and sunshine and massive calorie intake. Patients consumed steak, eggs, bread and milk to fight a wasting disease.
Memorial Hospital began as a TB treatment center. UCCS is on the site of the Cragmor Sanatorium. Penrose was once the Glockner Tuberculosis Sanatorium. The United States Olympic Center was home to the National Methodist Sanatorium. And that’s a partial list.
After World War II, scientists developed vaccinations to prevent TB and drugs to kill it. This, blessedly, ended the sanitarium era in Colorado Springs.
On Wednesday evening, I walked through the Union Printers Home with a friend on the way to visit his relative. The first floor retains the vaulted ceilings and Victorian decoration from 1892 and the dining room still has original hat hooks and coat hooks.
The rest of the facility is less stately. The small, private rooms have no running water. It was easy to see why the facility soon will close.
On a May day in 1892, thousands gathered to celebrate a fresh building. Leading physicians agreed, a Union Printers Home publication stated, that Colorado Springs offers “the most perfect” TB sanitarium conditions in the world. In those sad times, those ideal conditions fueled the growth of a struggling city.