When Merle Hardman read a newspaper article recently about the upcoming demolition of Highland Hall on OCC’s Highland Lakes campus in Waterford, she rushed out to see if she could see it one more time. Hardman lived in the building for two and a half years starting at the age of 5.
Built in 1927, 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 wing.
Hardman (formerly Burgdorf) lost both of her parents to TB. She and an older sister Gabrielle Bates, now 94 and living in Harrison, were also diagnosed with the disease and sent to live in Highland Hall soon after it opened in 1928. Hardman, now 89, lived there until 1930.
“Rest, fresh air, cod liver oil and sunshine were the only treatments for TB,” Hardman, of White Lake, said recently as she walked through the halls where she remembers getting into trouble as a kid.
Hardman’s tour included her niece Nancy Van Hull (Burgdorf), retired nursing OCC faculty and Hardman's friend Sherrill Sundberg, Interim Highland Lakes Campus President Cynthia Roman and 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 toured the building’s cafeteria, a basement tunnel she remembers traversing as a kid and the hospital floor where she spent so much time.
“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, Hardman went to live with her grandparents, who adopted her. 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.
“She wanted a brick,” said her niece Van Hull, who attended the tour of Highland Hall with Hardman and whose father Floyd Babcock was the first general manager of the sanatorium. “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.”
“It was something for her to go through there,” she said of the recent tour. “When she stood there, she did feel it and remember it.”
“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.”