When Merle Hardman read a newspaper article recently about the upcoming demolition of Highland Hall on OCC’s Highland Lakes Campus, she set out to find out how she could land a couple of bricks as keepsakes. Hardman lived in the building for two and a half years starting at the age of 5.
Built in 1926, Highland Hall was known as the Oakland County Tuberculosis Sanatorium in its early days, housing patients with the disease. The hospital included a children’s floor and later a children’s ward at what is now High Oakes Hall.
Hardman (formerly Burgdorf) lost both her parents to TB before she was a year old. Her birth parents, Phil and Dorothy Camp, were married at 19, had their only daughter Merle Hardman (born Camp), and died four months apart at the age of 22. Hardman was then adopted by her maternal grandparents, who she considers her parents.
She and her older sister Gabrielle Bates (gained through her adoption), were also diagnosed with the disease and sent to live in Highland Hall in 1929. Hardman, now 89, lived there until she was thought to be well in 1931. Bates, now 94 and a resident of Harrison, lived at the sanatorium a year.
“After we left, they X-rayed us every year until they could no longer see a problem with our lungs,” said Hartman, of White Lake. “I honestly don’t even remember being sick.”
Hardman contacted her friend Sherill Sundberg, a former nursing faculty at OCC, about the possibility of getting a brick from Highland Hall. Sundberg instead got her a tour of the closed facility.
“Rest, fresh air, cod liver oil and sunshine were the only treatments for TB,” she said on a recent tour of the facility where she remembers getting into trouble as a kid.
Hardman’s tour included her niece Nancy Van Hull (Burgdorf), Sherrill Sundberg, Interim Highland Lakes Campus President Cynthia Roman and OCC Chief Engineer Ken Reynolds.
Hardman took many photos with a disposable camera, her facial expressions alternating from confusion by the changed surroundings to glee when recognizing a certain window she remembers hanging out of as a kid seeking mischief.
She walked through the building’s former wards (now classrooms), lavatories and a stairwell where a sun porch used to be. She was thrilled to visit the basement kitchen, near a tunnel she remembers traversing as a kid when orderlies rolled her in her bed to the children’s hospital annex.
“We were all bored to tears,” she chuckled. “There was very little for kids to do. Nurses didn’t allow us out of bed and there was no school or homework.”
“The nuns came out on Saturday and taught catechism,” she added. “I do remember having one book. It was about fruit, bananas, oranges and plums, but that’s it.”
After she left the sanatorium in 1931, Hardman went back to living with her family. She worked at General Motors for 30 years.
When a cure for TB was found in the 1950s, the patient population at Highland Hall dwindled. In late 1964, the buildings and property were sold to OCC. The 68,741-square foot building had been used for classroom space since then. It closed permanently last year. The college spends $50,000 a year to keep it running and demolishing it will present a cost savings, Roman said. The space will be used as a student commons area.
“It was something for her to go through there,” said her niece Van Hull, who attended the tour of the Highland Hall with Hardman and whose maternal father Floyd Babcock was the first general manager of the sanatorium. “When she stood there, she did feel it and remember it.”
“You can imagine what it must be like as a child to be taken out of your home and sent to an institution. I can’t even imagine the impact. But she is one of the most positive people I have ever known in my life.”
“She was healthy as a horse her whole life,” Van Hull added. “That’s the amazing thing—she and my aunt both were and they started their lives in a TB sanatorium.”
Written by Margarita Bauza Wagerson. For story ideas or feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org.