“Of inestimable value in caring for and curing the most serious cases [of the 1918-19 influenza epidemic], many of which were thought hopeless, has been the porch on the south side of the building which is used as a pneumonia ward. In the low death rate among the children patients has also made a remarkable record. It having lost but one of its 171 cases.” From “Hospital at Canoe Club Receiving No More Patients.” March 13, 1919 [clipping from unidentified Saginaw newspaper]
The emergency hospitals developed by the Saginaw Chapter of the Red cross in response to the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 saved the lives of numerous Saginaw County residents. Staffed by volunteers, they were housed in three existing facilities – a contagious disease hospital, a garment factory and the Saginaw Canoe Club.
Architecturally, the most interesting was the Saginaw Canoe Club. Located along the east bank of the river south of the eastern approach of the current Court Street Bridge – in the vicinity of the current Crayola Crayon-themed park, it was constructed as a private club. Verandas extended across each side of the structure. On the second floor, large porches were fitted with screens and removable windows that allowed members and guests to enjoy nature and views of the river - without being bothered by insects. In form, these spaces were almost identical in form to the sleeping porches that were a ubiquitous feature of early twentieth century homes. In fact, they were so common that a c. 1912 newspaper article describing a home on Holland Court noted that the large groups of windows on the corner of each bedroom made sleeping porches unnecessary.
Sleeping porch addition from a c. 1918 Aladdin Homes catalog
So exactly, what is a sleeping porch? Why were they so popular in the early twentieth century? Why would the newspaper credit them for being helpful in the cure for influenza patients?
The website, Buffalo as an architectural dictionary provides a concise definition and history of the sleeping porch.
It is a porch or room having open sides or many windows arranged to permit sleeping in the open air. Sleeping porches first gained popularity at the turn of the 20th century. Many people believed that fresh air helped sufferers of tuberculosis, a respiratory system illness that was the leading cause of death at that time in our country's history. At that time, health experts also touted the benefits of fresh air for avoiding other illnesses. Before the advent of air conditioning, families often created sleeping areas on outdoor porches, where children would sleep during the warmer months. The porches are often included in the front and back of the home, specifically on corners so as to have access to breezes from all different directions. However, a sleeping porch is often upstairs.
In Queen Anne style houses, often access to the sleeping porch is through a window - not a door. There was a 1929 movie entitled The Sleeping Porch directed by Leslie Pearce and starring Raymond Griffith. Visit here for history and definition.
The Clarence H. Brand Home on Granger Street in Saginaw features a sun room on the first floor with a second floor sleeping porch.
As one drives through Saginaw, the observant tourist will find numerous examples. Very often they are located on the second floor in the rear of the house, adjacent to the bedrooms. Whether they are part of the original construction or later addition, they are always easily identified by their distinctive bands of windows – often located a few feet off the floor to ensure a degree of privacy.
Perhaps, the best preserved example in Saginaw is at the Theodore Roethke boyhood home, 1805 Gratiot Ave. The Roethke sleeping porch was added to the home shortly after it was constructed. In the attic, where the sleeping porch joins the existing roof line, the original wood shingles are still preserved by the addition. The communal nature of sleeping porches is suggested by the only true entrance to the Roethke's sleeping porch - a door from the main bathroom. Even in homes, sleeping porches were often furnished by metal-framed beds arranged in a dormitory-like fashion. Sort of a summer camp outside your bedroom door.
When one looks at an image of the Canoe Club, it doesn't take much of an imagination to see how the organizers of the hospital were able to re-imagine and convert the second floor porch into a sleeping porch-like hospital ward. When we can again explore our communities by car and foot, keep your eyes open for sleeping porches. A symbol of the early twentieth century infatuation with nature and a faith in its healing powers.