Ask a Librarian

Blair Sanitarium

by Alethea Drexler, archives assistant

Marie Brannon, one of our volunteers, has been doing a great job sorting through some of our intimidating collection of photographs.  What is the first lesson learned by projects such as this?  Always document your pictures.
I repeat: Always document your pictures.
Few things are more frustrating than being confronted with a pile of photographs that don’t have dates, don’t have addresses, don’t include names of the people in them, don’t record the event at which the picture was taken . . . you get the idea.  We always assume we’ll remember, but twenty or forty or eighty years later, they fall into the clutches of people like Marie and I, and we wring our hands in despair and try to create context by tracking down the model years of the cars and studying what you’re wearing.  If you don’t want to be remembered for your 1978 Toyota Celica or your winged hair, give us something else by which to identify the picture!
The following was less problematic than many of our pictures because, well, at least it’s a hospital, and it has some very good clues.

Blair’s Sanitarium

This is Blair’s Sanitarium, which was located just north of the downtown area in the early twentieth century.
There are three things that I want you to notice in this picture.  One is that there are two buggies and a car on the street to the right; the car is important.  Second: Notice the locations of the electrical and telephone poles.  Last: Take a good look at the neighboring buildings.  The grocery store and hotel across the street has distinctive Italianate trim, and there is a low, Romanesque-style building on the next block, to the right in the photo.  It has an archway over the door.
I found a reference to Dr. Blair in a Standard Blue Book, Texas Edition, 1920[1], posted online by the Internet Archive:
“Blair, John M., Houston ; Physician and Surgeon. Propr. of Blair’s Sanitarium. 1212 to 1220 Liberty Avenue ; phone Preston 9876. Home address, 1220% Liberty Avenue. Born in Indiana. February 4, 1859. Educated at Rush College, Medical Department. Chicago University; degree. M. D. Member of Masonic Blue Lodge and Scottish Rite, and Caledonian Society. Ancestry, >*< -i i Teh. Served during the war in the Reserve Corps. Member of Indiana Legislature, year 1892-93. “
Dr. Blair is entry #1760 in the McGovern Research Center’s Gazetteer[2].  It supports the assertion that he bought the building in 1900.  It was still listed as Blair’s Sanitarium in the 1930 census[3], so it was apparently a comparatively long-lived institution.
Here is another shot.  It’s not legible at this resolution, but the street number above the door is 1212.

1212 . . . something street

Miraculously, somebody left us these two pictures with . . . documentation!


It seems that the Sanitarium building had a colorful history as the former Natchez Hotel and Bell Tower Saloon.  Phil Montgomery, the HRC archivist, and I agree that it looks more like a saloon, with that corner front door and the wide, gingerbread-trimmed, galleries, than a hospital.  I couldn’t find any references to either of those establishments (I did find a Bell Tower Salon in Reading, Pennsylvania, but I doubt they want to be confused with a former saloon).
This must have been an established part of town even a hundred years ago.  None of these were new buildings.  We know that the Sanitarium had at least two past lives, and Italianate and Romanesque are architectural styles that peaked in the third quarter and last quarter of the nineteenth century, respectively.  It’s interesting, too, to see both buggies and cars on the street: The state of transportation was in transition.
Documentation can be tricky, even when it’s helpful.  The given address of 1301 Nance doesn’t fit with the 1212 that is clearly visible above the building’s door in the original photograph, and the estimated photograph date of 1900 is too early.  How do we know it’s too early?
The car.  Any car in a picture would have been rare in 1900.  Houston was probably a big enough city to have had some cars in 1900, but the car in the picture is closer to a 1910 model, so this was likely taken in the early ‘Teens.
Luckily, we do know that Dr. Blair practiced at the corner of Liberty and Nance Streets.  Google Maps sends us on a wild goose chase when we search for “1212 Liberty”, which suggests that the street no longer exists.  A search on “1301 Nance”, however, takes us to a location in the shadow of I-10[4] East, near the Last Concert Café and the St. Arnold’s Brewing Company.  (The red inverted teardrop indicates 1301 Nance.)
If we zoom in, we’ll see that Liberty Street is now Rothwell Street, which explains why the first search didn’t work.  “1212 Rothwell”, though, moves us west one block to that narrow sliver[5] of ground across the street from “M Architects”.
Things get really fun when we switch to Google Maps’ street view[6].  The Sanitarium is gone, replaced by a support pillar for an exit ramp for I-10.
(Google Maps, it seems, refuses to play nicely with the street view.  To see it, look at the street address listed on the left side if your screen.  You’ll see options “Directions”, “Search nearby”, “Save to map”, and “More”.  Click on “More” and select “Street view” from the pull-down menu.  Use the arrows within the circle in the upper left corner of the street view to rotate the image so you can see all 360 degrees.)
However, the Brooklyn Hotel is still there, though in a drastically altered state, and the Romanesque building is still visible in the background.  Oh, and the telephone poles are in more or less the same locations!
The Gazetteer entry also tells us that he was the president of the Houston Academy of Medicine in 1915, and that he served at some point as editor for the journal Southwestern Medicine.
It also tells us that he’s P-2484 in the McGovern photo collection[7]:

Dr. John Marquiss Blair

It’s difficult to tell because this is a photograph of a photograph, but the lapel pin appears to be a Masonic emblem.  The collar on his shirt would have been detachable.  It’s possible that this was taken around the time he came to work for the Houston Academy of Medicine, which would have made it more likely to find its way to us.
[1] Standard Blue Book, Texas Edition, 1920, online through the Internet Archive.
[2] Houston Academy of Medicine-Texas Medical Center Library, John P. McGovern Historical Research Center, Gazetteer of Texas Physicians on the digital commons.
[3] 1930 Census, Harris County, Texas, Enumeration District 101-66, online at
[4], [5], [6] Google Maps.
[7] Houston Academy of Medicine-Texas Medical Center Library, John P. McGovern Historical Research Center photograph collection.