Up in the Air
Photo © Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Located in Dansville, NY
- Also Known As:Jackson Health Resort, Physical Culture Hotel, Our Home on the Hillside, Dansville Water Cure, Bernarr Mcfadden's Castle on the Hill
- Location Genre:Sanitarium / Spa
- Age:132 years
- Demo / Renovated:N/A
- Decaying for:43 years
- Last Known Status:Abandoned
The history of the old "castle on the hill" in Dansville NY begins in 1798 when an explosion startled the early settlers of the town, emanating from East Hill. Upon investigation of the quake, a new hole was discovered in the rock that sent water cascading down the slope from an underground spring. "Breakout Creek" as it was named remained just a local curiosity until 1851 when Rochester businessman Nathaniel Bingham learned of this mineral-rich water source. He believed this water had therapeutic properties when applied internally (drinking) and externally (baths and wraps), known then as the Water Cure, or Hydrotherapy - a popular alternative medicine in the 19th century. Bingham believed that Dansville would be an ideal place to open a spa, but the Dansville Water Cure facility that opened in 1854 did not fare well, even after a few successors tried their businesses after Bingham became ill and sold the property.
The site didn't become a profitable business until Caleb Jackson took over the institute in 1870 and called it Our Home on the Hillside. Jackson, once a deathly ill man who was restored to full health by hydrotherapy, also believed in a strict diet high in unprocessed grain, fruits and vegetables and no read meat, tea, coffee, tobacco or alcohol - although something we all know about these days, it was a somewhat radical idea at the time. Jackson is also credited with the invention of Granula, the first cold breakfast cereal.
Under Jackson's guidance (and profits from Granula), Our Home on the Hillside thrived, drawing many popular icons on the lecture circuit such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Clara Barton, who eventually became a patient after her lengthy travels, and who would later found the first American Red Cross chapter in Dansville in 1881.
In 1882, an overturned lantern in a patient's room had completely destroyed Our Home on the Hillside. The Jackson family quickly built a larger and fireproof building which opened on October 1st, 1883. The new 5-story Jackson Sanatorium was designed by A.J. Warner and cost $200,000 to construct, which was completed within a single year. Although the sanatorium thrived for a few years, patient population eventually declined due to the advancements in modern treatments and pharmacology which doomed water cure philosophy. In 1914, the Jackson Health Resort filed for bankruptcy. The facility was used for a few months as a psychiatric hospital by the Army, treating World War I veterans, and afterward, a few attempts to reopen the health resort were attempted and failed.
Again, a savior brought the facility back into a prosperous state - this time it would be Bernarr Mcfadden, who purchased the sanatorium in the spring of 1929. Mcfadden was an early advocate of body building, and a somewhat eccentric man who lived an interesting life both as a physical fitness guru and business entrepreneur with his successful magazine called Physical Culture. The sanatorium was thus renamed the Physical Culture Hotel, and was one of a handful of resort hotels owned by Mcfadden (but considered to be his favorite by far). He refurbished the old building and it soon blossomed into a thriving hotel with top-notch accommodations due to his wealth and publicity stunts. It was both a hospital for the ill and a scenic getaway for celebrities and wealthy people, even during the Great Depression. The hotel buzzed with activity, featuring activities such as swimming, tennis, sunbathing, and starlight dances on the roof at night. The music would often drift down the hill into the town, where residents would gaze up admiringly at what was locally known as the "P.C."
Even though Mcfadden was 61 when he purchased the hotel, his stunning drive for physical fitness never ceased. One of his most well-known promotional stunts was the annual Cracked Wheat Derby - marathon group hikes fron Dansville to New York City and sometimes even Philadelphia, all on foot. The name was derived from the cracked wheat cereal on which the hikers relied on so much as sustenance. He also caused a media stir by taking up parachuting on his 81st birthday.
After Mcfadden's death in 1955 at the age of 87, the hotel was acquired by William Fromcheck, owner of several hotels in Manhattan. He kept the place open under the name Bernarr Mcfadden's Castle on the Hill, but patient population steadily dwindled year after year. When the hotel closed for the season on Labor Day in 1971, it was never opened again. Fromcheck died the following year, and almost everything inside the building was removed and sold off.
Although various owners had tried to make use of the building, all efforts were unsuccessful, and so the building decayed. A grant was given to Dansville by New York State to renovate the building - possibly into a Bernarr Mcfadden Museum, sometime in the future.