Only the birds know what really happens at Seaside, the abandoned sanatorium that looms over a rocky swath of the Connecticut coast. The sprawling property is never truly empty, for they are always there: the seagulls, swooping and whirling with an agility drones can’t master; the cormorants, perched wings-out like otherworldly sentinels on the pilings beyond the jetties; and whatever flying creatures inhabit the old chimneys, their twig nests poking out above the red bricks.
But because the birds can’t tell us, we investigate, flouting the warning signs and finding our way through the chain-link perimeter. Often, what we see in our furtive explorations is unsettling – many say supernatural. And why wouldn’t it be? Every ghost story has taught us to be wary of historic places like Seaside: grand and decrepit, wind-swept and overgrown, ringed with tempting walkways and shaded by rustling trees.
It’s hard to believe now, but Seaside Sanatorium (sometimes simply called “The Seaside,” among other names) was once regarded as a pleasant place. Though it was built to house children suffering from tuberculosis, it wasn’t the typical foreboding medical facility. In 1930, decades into a devastating epidemic, the Connecticut State Tuberculosis Commission decided to build a new treatment facility, the first of its kind in the nation. It would focus on heliotropic treatment (i.e., exposure to the sun) which was then emerging in Europe. Sick children would live at Seaside for months at a time, resting in the sunlight and playing in the salt air.
To a modern visitor, the hulking Tudor Revival buildings, enhanced with story-book details borrowed from other architectural styles, cast an aesthetically sinister gloom over the grounds. But in its time, the design was meant to evoke domesticity and comfort. It was also distinct from its famous architect’s previous works. Cass Gilbert, best known for the United States Supreme Court building, the Woolworth Building, and three neoclassical state capitols, was also responsible for a number of imposing Connecticut facades. From New Haven’s Union Station to Waterbury’s City Hall, they are all impressive. But they bear little resemblance to Seaside, with its narrow spires, rows of dormers, and lighthouse-like towers. This, as it turned out, was one of Gilbert’s last works. He died a month before its dedication.
By the 1950s, advances in public health measures and medical treatments had rendered sanatoriums obsolete. But Seaside would live on, first as a home for the elderly, ultimately as a center for the developmentally disabled. Over the years, there were reports and whispers of things seen and felt. Patients had died here; too many, it was said, though perhaps this was to be expected, at a home for the very ill or very aged. Abuse was alleged too, mistreatment of vulnerable individuals – though on the other hand, Seaside was sometimes described as exemplary compared to other facilities.
The stories only increased after Seaside padlocked its green doors and boarded its many windows in 1996. Those who ventured into the buildings’ dark halls returned with audio recordings, purported to be of disembodied voices; photographs of unexplained phenomena; tales of encounters with apparitions. As time passed, and more people came to experience the spooky side of Seaside, fact, fiction, and the murky place where they overlap grew harder to distinguish.
Today, Seaside languishes in the real estate limbo that plagues many neglected Connecticut jewels. The slow-motion tug-of-war between preservationists, government agencies, developers, and neighbors plays out in lawsuits and legislation. Just as slowly, ivy creeps along the brickwork, and the covered bridge accumulates graffiti, and the chess table bolted to the ground twists like a tortured thing. Seaside stands as a quasi-state park, with the state of Connecticut and the town of Waterford partially maintaining the grounds, and the structures deteriorating.
Still, people return to this strange parcel on the shoreline. They walk from the fenced-in buildings across the sloping lawn, to where the small beach sinks several feet below a serpentine seawall. Its sand is neither smooth white nor piled with shells, but dyed with minerals, garnet or magnetite perhaps, adding to the place’s darkness. Boulders and driftwood trees collect here beside a flat expanse of mangled concrete. The coast is punctuated by jetties, where fishermen sometimes huddle on the rocks. Boats idle just offshore, as if prepared to speed away at any moment.
Some visitors come to Seaside in search of whatever spirits linger here. The signs – NO TRESPASSING and NO SWIMMING and DANGER KEEP OUT – no doubt add to the unease, as do rumors of people seeking shelter in dark corridors and guards chasing the curious away.
But as in all such haunting places, the disquiet that comes with the sudden fluttering of the fall leaves is probably tied to plain old history and simple human fear. Fear of ancient perils, like disease, that all too often leap into the present. Fear of growing old, infirm, dependent. Fear that our most ambitious endeavors may be behind us, our most inspired creations left to rot under the elements. Fear that the birds, careening past the warning signs and traveling effortlessly above the rough waves, might know things they can never tell.
Seaside State Park
Address: 36 Shore Road, Waterford, CT 06385
The park allows “passive recreation” such as walking, fishing, and birdwatching.
The buildings are not open to the public.