Monday, May 4, 2020

The Sanatariums of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

By Pamela S. Meyers

There was a time, long after the Great Chicago Fire had prompted many Chicago area millionaires to migrate to the shores of beautiful Geneva Lake in Southeastern Wisconsin that the Lake Geneva area became known as a proper place for convalescence from mental ailments and other emotional disorders. Over a period of time several sanitariums were established in the area. 

One of the best known ones was called Oakwood. The stately-looking building, built halfway up a hill on the east side of town could be seen from the top of another hill on the west side of town as it vied for attention with the steeple of the nearby Catholic church.

Dr. Oscar King
Photo from Facebook
Lake Geneva Sanitariums
Oakwood was founded by Dr. Oscar King, a psychiatrist and neurologist, He searched the area of southeastern Wisconsin for the ideal spot to establish his sanitarium for nervous disorders. When he saw Geneva Lake and the community nestled into a valley between two hills, he snapped up property on one of the hills and built his sanitarium. The Oakwood facility was made to appeal to the well-to-do and celebrities, some who would probably come under assumed names to protect the privacy. Writer Lisa Bertotto Schmelz says in her article about King and his sanitariums:

Opened on May 13, 1885, Oakwood Springs was built at the then-astonishing cost of $80,000. Its treatments for diseases of the brain and nervous system were, at the time, the best the world could offer. In addition to promoting health via 63 acres of rolling hills and spectacular lake views, Oakwood’s attending physicians supervised a myriad of treatments. King would go on to acquire two other Lake Geneva properties and convert them into sanitariums. One was known as Lakeside, the other as Lakeside Cottage. 
Photo from Lake Geneva in
Vintage Postcards
Arcadia Publishing 2005
As Oakwood's reputation grew, Dr. King expanded to include other locations in Lake Geneva. One was known at the time as Redwood Cottage. It is now known as the Baker House restaurant. Another, called Lakeside Cottage, had already seen life as a dormitory for girls attending a seminary a short distance away. (Note a seminary for girls back then was not the same kind of seminary that trains people for Christian ministry) By the time I was a child in the 1950s, Lakeside was known as the Luzern Hotel. It was eventually torn down to make way for a larger and more modern hotel, known today as Harbor Shores. 

Lakeside Cottage as it appeared later
as the Luzern Hotel
Photo From At The Lake Magazine,
Summer 2011
Dr King wasn't the only person to establish sanitariums in Lake Geneva. From the turn of the century in 1900 until the Great Depression, a number of sanitariums were located in the Geneva Lake area. I recently came across an
Photo from Facebook,
Geneva Lake Museum Collection
advertisement for one that was located in what was last known as the Traver Hotel. Not as fancy or costly as King's facilities, but perhaps more affordable to people. Just this past summer that building, which had gone into disrepair, was torn down to make way for a new building that will house several businesses. 

One interesting note is that after Oakwood closed during the Depression, it went into disrepair and sat empty for many years. Over those years it suffered two fires and its dilapidated condition only added to its reputation among local children that the building was haunted. As a child, I heard those rumors and, just looking at it from afar, was enough to scare me half to death. I know local boys often went in there to play and horse around, but neither I or my girlfriends would never dare to go near it. It was eventually torn down and nowadays a medical building and apartment complex sit on the property. 

Did you have a building growing up that the local children thought was haunted? Did you ever find out later the history of the building?

To learn more about Dr. King and his sanitariums and methods of treatment you can find Lisa Schmelz's full article at

 Pamela S. Meyers and her two rescue cats makes their home in northeast Illinois. Only a short drive from Wisconsin where she can be found nosing around the Geneva Lake area for new story ideas. Her newest book, Tranquility Point, Book 3, in her historical Lake Geneva series releases May 5, 2020.


  1. I don't remember a building in particular in our small village, but it seems like I remember a family who thought their house had a ghost. I wasn't close enough to the family to ever be invited over by any of the children so I never experienced it personally. Thanks for the post, your monthly entries make me want to visit the Lake Geneva area and see all of these mansions.

  2. Hello Pam, I enjoyed this post about sanitariums. In my family history I found several family members from the 1940s and 1950s who were patients in a sanitarium called Lunatic Hospital #3 located in Nevada, MO. It was a Kirkbride building and magnificent! It is gone now, but several buildings remain on the grounds and are in use today. About hauntings, my great-grandmother's sister owned and lived in an old hotel in a small town north of my hometown. She lived in the first floor. When we visited her, my brothers and I would sneak upstairs. All of the rooms still had the furniture in them and the curtains were closed, making the rooms dark and shadowy. Some of the furniture were shrouded. My ten-year-old mind went to work and before long I would have my little brothers scared to death and we were hurrying down the steep staircase where safety awaited! Thanks for a great post!