Revisiting downtown Orlando’s sanitariums


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Today, visitors and residents of downtown Orlando may not take notice of the unassuming three-story building at the southeast corner of Central Boulevard and Magnolia. But this 107-year-old building, currently occupied by the Stagger Inn, was long ago home to one of Orlando’s first hospitals, the McEwan Clinic.

Dr. John McEwan moved to Orlando in 1906 to work for Dr. R.L. Harris, who founded a tuberculosis sanitarium on the shores of Lake Estelle — the beginning of what would later become Florida Hospital. By 1911, McEwan had built his own twenty-room hospital at 100 East Central Boulevard. The next year, he garnered international recognition when he performed a delicate operation to remove a portion of a man’s cancerous windpipe. McEwan left Orlando to serve in World War I, but he returned to run the clinic until his retirement in 1942.

The McEwan Hospital, built in 1911 at the southwest corner of Main Street (present day Magnolia Avenue) and Central Boulevard
Photo courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center

The McEwan Clinic, however, was not the first or only hospital in downtown.

The oldest hospital dates back to 1893 when a widow named Mrs. Phillard gave seven cottages along the north side of Anderson Street, between Delaney and Lake avenues, to The Cottage Hospital Association as a home for elderly women. According to Eve Bacon’s Orlando: A Centennial History, Mrs. Phillard had initially tried to rent the four-room units, but no one wanted them because “the site was so far from the business district.”

Dr. Harris, who is sometimes credited as the first automobile owner in Orlando, also built a home and hospital on the southeast corner of North Orange Avenue and Jefferson Street.

And Dr. C.D. Christ opened the Orlando Sanitarium at the northwest corner of Magnolia Avenue and Robinson Street. He constructed a three-story brick building outfitted with steam heat, a heated swimming pool, and a roof for sunbathing.

Physicians in early 20th-century Orlando also traversed the city’s sand roads making house calls, which, in 1909, cost $2 – $5 during the day or $3 – $10 at night. Patients’ most common ailments included dengue (a mosquito-borne viral infection), typhoid fever (a bacterial illness spread through contaminated food and water), and smallpox.

Orlando’s original cottage hospital (renamed the Church and Home Hospital and later St. Luke’s Hospital) became the go-to facility for those who could not afford to convalesce at a private sanitarium. In its first 15 years, more than half of the hospital’s patients were not able to pay for treatment. This, combined with the expenses of rapid expansion to accommodate Orlando’s growing population, led to the hospital’s closing in 1916.

The Church and Home Hospital, ca. 1904. Run by the Episcopal Diocese, the hospital included operating rooms, wards, and private rooms.
Photo courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center

To fulfill the city’s need for a new, modern health care facility, McEwan, Christ, and others founded Orange General Hospital in 1918. It would later become the Orlando Regional Medical Center.

As Orlando Health celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, the History Center invites you to participate in preserving your community’s history.

If you have stories, photographs, documents, or objects related to Orlando Health that you would like to loan (or donate) for our exhibition coming this November, please contact our collections manager, Whitney Broadaway, at 407-836-8587 or whitney.broadaway@ocfl.net.

Lesleyanne Drake is the curator of collections at the Orange County Regional History Center.

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