The original Sydenham Hospital for Communicable Diseases, named for a physician who worked with children’s diseases, was constructed near Bay View Asylum in Baltimore and opened in 1909. Almost immediately the tiny 35-bed facility was deemed “fatally inadequate” for the needs of a city of 600,000. In 1914 the superintendent of Johns Hopkins Hospital declared it scandalous, shameful, and unjust that the city had such meager resources only for the treatment of smallpox, diphtheria, and scarlet fever and only for its white citizens. Calling the city “in such unpreparedness for a possible epidemic of contagious disease as no other city in the land”, physicians painted a dire portrait of the current deaths attributed to lacking facilities and of the potential for greater disasters to come. Baltimore’s mayor refused a loan for any new provisions and was so angry at Sydenham’s superintendent for discussing the conditions at his hospital with the rest of the medical community that he demanded the superintendent’s resignation. For several years no further progress was made.
By 1922, though, the new mayor agreed on plans for a nine-building campus in Montebello that could initially care for up to 140. The new campus was built in the Italian Renaissance Revival style and opened in 1924. This facility was well equipped to treat many more contagious diseases, ranging from polio to infantile paralysis to whooping cough to typhoid, and it was situated in an idyllic location that would allow room for expansion. The research department established in 1935 swiftly attracted many distinguished medical professionals and medical students often were stationed there as well.
By 1949 the need for care for contagious diseases at Sydenham had dwindled and it was generally agreed on that it would be best for the facility to close, with its staff and patients transferred to city hospitals. Though it appears that this was the case, at least some of Sydenham was still being used to treat tuberculosis patients when the state decided to purchase the campus in 1951 to relocate their chronic disease treatment facilities for indigent elderly patients.
The property was renamed and reopened as Montebello State Hospital in 1953, and nearly $3 million was spent on renovations and additions. Staffing shortages plagued the hospital in the 1960s due to uncompetitive salaries, and the former Sydenham Hospital building was periodically left vacant when it could not be staffed. The Baltimore Sun reported in 1977 that “Montebello has been plagued by staffing problems since it opened. Nurse and doctor shortages periodically have been so severe at the hospital that certain sections there were forced to shut down. Admissions were sometimes halted temporarily. State salaries were often not competitive with salaries in other Baltimore hospitals, and Montebello was often a place where severely disabled persons with no hope of rehabilitation were sent.” The governor of Maryland decided to close Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital, as it was then known, in favor of the new William Donald Schaefer Rehabilitations Center that opened in 1996. Montebello’s campus became part of Morgan State University. While it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 2013 the hospital and several other buildings were unceremoniously demolished. As of 2017, the lot they occupied remains empty.
Sydenham, and later Montebello, treated hundreds of patients and was the site of numerous medical breakthroughs. According to the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (which provides a wealth of information about the campus, architecture, and history for those interested in further research), “A number of treatments contributing to the control of various communicable diseases, including the development of sulfa drugs for the cure of meningitis and measles-pneumonia, were pioneered at Sydenham; ironically these advancements ultimately led to the demise of Sydenham and other communicable disease hospitals.” It’s a shame that no better use for it was ultimately found and that the city lost a unique part of its architectural and medical legacy.