Rise and fall of The Sun Palace: history of the Cragmor Sanatorium

Taylor Burnfield

tburnfie@uccs.edu 

Nestled between Dwire and Cragmor Hall, you may have noticed a large, ivy-covered building that overlooks the Cragmor green. Now known as Main Hall, where the advising offices are located, this building pre-dates the founding of UCCS.  

     Once known as Cragmor Sanatorium, it was built in 1905 as a treatment center for people with tuberculosis (TB). TB is a deadly lung infection that has historically killed millions of people every year, even after the discovery of antibiotics and a vaccine. Despite a decline in TB related deaths in recent decades, it is still one of the top ten causes of death worldwide. 

     The building known as Main Hall today is a small fraction of the original property, which was at one time was the largest sanatorium in the world.  

     Nicknamed “The Sun Palace,” the original property covered 140 acres, with six major buildings, eight private cabins, a convenience store, a hair salon, a library, an entertainment hall, botanical gardens, a parking garage, horse stables, tennis courts and a golf course.  

     The property also featured an additional 550-acre village with individual homes available to families affected by TB. 

     Wealthy patients from across the globe flocked to Cragmor Sanatorium in search of a cure for TB. Popular treatments included plenty of rest, a healthy diet, leisurely activities and sunbathing.  

     Cragmor housed celebrity patients including Constance Pulitzer, daughter of Joseph Pulitzer, American painter Russell Cheney and songwriter and composer Vincent Youmans

     During the heyday of the sanatorium in the 1920s, lavish parties were a nightly occurrence; even during prohibition, alcohol flowed freely.  

     At Christmas time, the sanatorium was decorated with over 2,000 feet of garland, love affairs between patients were common and some patients even got married on the property. 

Patients at Cragmor Sanatorium in 1925.
Photo courtesy of Pinterest.com

     The philosophy of Cragmor Sanatorium Director Dr. Alexius Forster was “to create an atmosphere … [of] happiness and cheerfulness.” As a result of the positive and leisurely atmosphere, many patients stayed at “The Sun Palace” even after they were cured of TB.  

     Despite its glamorous reputation, several patients died of TB during their stay at Cragmor but were not buried on the property. Many of the casualties were young; the average age of a sanatorium patient was 27. 

     When the stock market crashed in 1929, formerly affluent patients could no longer afford the expensive fees required to stay at the sanatorium. These patients were forcibly removed from the property and some became so devastated by their financial losses that they committed suicide. 

     During the Great Depression, Cragmor Sanatorium began accepting lower-class and middle-class patients and charged lower rates. 

     At this time, the large property could not be maintained due to a reduction of staff. As a result, the sanatorium began to deteriorate. Rats and cockroaches infested patients’ rooms and some patients even died due to medical negligence.  

     Cragmor lost its prestige and became a site of suspected criminal activities according to locals of the time. In the 1940s, the sanatorium became a location for illegal abortions. One former nurse reported that the sanatorium became the “abortion center of Colorado Springs.”  

     By the end of the 1940s, the sanatorium was bankrupt and preparing to close its doors when the federal government made an offer: the government agreed to financially support the sanatorium so that TB-infected Navajo tribe members could receive care. 

     Then-Cragmor Director George Dwire signed the contract and in the early 1950s, Navajo people from Arizona and New Mexico were transported to Cragmor Sanatorium for high-quality care.  

     The Navajo patients at Cragmor were encouraged to express their culture and speak in their native language. Patients also spent time creating traditional jewelry and clothing.  

     These accessories and garments made by the Navajo patients became popular fashion trends and people from all over the country purchased the creations, including actor Clark Gable.  

     According to personal accounts, the Navajo people enjoyed their time at the sanatorium. One former Navajo patient named Dorothy Todacheenie recalled, “I loved my stay at Cragmor … I recovered my health. I made a lot of friends.”  

Navajo patients at Cragmor Sanatorium in the 1950s.
Photo courtesy of the UCCS library archives.

     By the early 1960s, Dwire’s contract with the government expired and the Navajo patients were healed. Drugs to treat TB were widely available to the public by this time, making these types of sanatoriums obsolete.  

     Dwire sold the property to the University of Colorado for $1 in 1964. It officially opened its doors as an institution of higher education in 1965 and has continued to today. 

    Editor Note: Most of the information within this article comes from “Asylum on the Gilded Pill: The Story of the Cragmor Sanatorium,” written by UCCS Professor Emeritus Douglas McKay. Please refer to this text for more information on the history of Cragmor Sanatorium. 

Main Hall on campus that was once Cragmor Sanatorium.
Photo by Lauren Rock.