Community
5:00 am
Thu July 3, 2014

The Wichita Fresh Air Baby Camp

The Fresh Air Baby Camp was built in 1920. Here, it is shown in its current condition.
Credit Abigail Wilson

In the early 1900’s, people began to realize that young children, especially sick babies, needed well-circulated fresh air for their health. Following that principle, the Fresh Air Baby Camp was built in Wichita in 1920. The building is believed to be one of the last of its kind in the country. A local private volunteer group wants to bring the deteriorating building back to life. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has the story…

The Fresh Air Baby Camp Today

In Oak Park, just off 11th Street is the building that once was the Fresh Air Baby Camp. There is a cooling breeze from the river and shade from aging oak trees surrounds the sturdy stucco building. Most Wichitans know the building as the Girl Scout Little House, which it was for nearly 75 years. 

Kathy Morgan, Claire Willenberg and Janice Nava.
Credit Abigail Wilson.

Kathy Morgan, historic preservation planner for the city of Wichita points out the main parts of the building..

“The west end of the building was the crib room. The east end was where they had babies that might have needed to be quarantined,” Morgan says.

The tiny building stands in disrepair with faded white walls and boarded up windows. It has been vacant since 2001.

 “This facility operated in the good weather months say like from May through September or October because it did not have heating or cooling. You can see that by all of the windows on this building,” Morgan says. “They would have had those windows open and the air would’ve moved in and out. The babies would’ve received the health benefits of that.”

The Wichita Fresh Air Baby Camp housed children who had trouble breathing because of respiratory diseases or problems like colic. The building had 20 baby cribs and was staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses. The staff also provided education for young mothers.

The original Wesley Hospital building.
Credit Courtesy photo

The camp in Wichita was originally part of Wesley Hospital and was a special ward for sick infants who’s parents were poor. The care they received was also free.

 “At that time Wesley Hospital was housed in a three story Victorian house in midtown. There was no ventilation,” says Claire Willenberg, chairman of the board of the Friends of the Historic Fresh Air Baby Camp. “You can imagine how hard it was to get healthy if you were ailing.”

Inside the Fresh Air Baby Camp.
Credit Courtesy Photo

The purpose of the camp was to give sick infants access to fresh, cool air. To try to keep the building cool in a city where summer temperatures can soar above 100 degrees, the baby camp was built with unique triple sash windows in order to increase circulation in buildings at the time.

“So when they started getting more sophisticated about their building designs and started putting in windows that created a draft, it pulled cooler air in at the bottom and the warm air went out through the top, it would create an airflow circulation,” Morgan says.

The Fresh Air Movement

The Fresh Air Movement was a social economic trend beginning in the 20th century when people started to understand the benefits of fresh air. In crowded cities, where people lived in tenements, special cages were attached to an open window and babies were put inside them. Some even had coverings to protect the babies from snow.

In a book on the care and feeding of children written by Dr. L Emmett Holt, a late 19th century professor and physician, there is an entire chapter on “airing children.”

The book reads:

“Airing in the room may be begun, even in cold weather, when the child is one month old, at first for only fifteen minutes at a time. This period may be gradually lengthened by ten or fifteen minutes each day until it is four or five hours. This airing may be continued in almost all kinds of weather.

“Fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood, and this is just as necessary for health and growth as proper food. The effects of fresh air include improved appetite, better digestion, red cheeks and all signs of health." 

Christy Schunn, director of the Kansas Infant Death and SIDS Network, says that, back in the 1920s, infants were laid on their tummies to sleep, which made it hard for them to breath. This, in combination with the original hospital being in an old Victorian house, made the baby camp a vast improvement.

 “It was an older building and might’ve had environmental irritants like mold or mildew which would've made infection or asthmatic response to respiratory infection more difficult to deal with,” Schunn says. “So moving to this alternate environment would have increased the airflow available to the baby, or it could have increased oxygenation. It also might have increased the infants' ability to control their temperatures.”

This photo from 1949 shows the Fresh Air Baby Camp building at 1221 W 11th. Depicted is its reuse as the Girl Scout Little House.
Credit Courtesy photo

Restoration Efforts

The Fresh Air Baby Camp was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, and the Friends of the Historic Fresh Air Baby Camp came together a few years later with the mission to restore it.

The focus right now is on the roof, which will be completed using custom tiles from Ludowici Roof Tiles — the same company that supplied the original roofing materials. The roof will cost an estimated $150,000. It’s expensive but it’s also fireproof -  just like the rest of the building.

“It originally was a tent structure that had a wood floor and canvas sides and that structure burned in 1919,” Kathy Morgan explains.

The fire destroyed the camp in June, prior to its second season of operation. It was not occupied at the time. The business community and private individuals donated everything from building materials to labor, and by August a new facility was completed and open for the sick babies.

“This building is important to Wichita because it shows the willingness of the business community to step forward and donate and help and create something that’s beneficial to the entire community,” Morgan adds. “And we've done a lot of research and we haven’t been able to identify any other structures remaining that were used for this original purpose.”

The camp was open until 1926 when the babies were moved to a permanent facility on Wesley Hospital’s property on north Hillside. The move enabled the program to continue year-round, instead of just in the summer. The local Girl Scout Council then leased the empty building in Oak Park. 

The west side of the Fresh Air Baby Camp.
Credit Abigail Wilson

Next steps for the restoration of the baby camp include a geothermal heating and cooling system as well as finishing the triple sash windows that at one time pulled in much-needed fresh air.

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The Friends of the Historic Fresh Air Baby Camp estimate that the restoration will be completed by next summer. The building is located in a city park, so it will be open for public use.