Lost in an “Insane” Asylum – The Uhls Sanitarium: Part I

(originally published 1/10/19)

Research is a treacherous business. It’s so easy to get lost. Easy, because there are so many ways to get lost. The first part of this story is an example of one kind of getting off track, specifically getting “into the weeds.” When I get into the weeds, it means I’m now looking at a level of detail that will never make it into the piece I’m working on, but still I have to know, because you never know, right? It’s so damn interesting, I just can’t help myself.

I was looking through the Nichols Company Scrapbooks (see link below) at the State Historical Society. I was on the trail of some information for a recent book, which of course had nothing to do the pictures that caught my eye – a mysterious old building that looked like it was being taken over by a jungle. The scrapbook page identified the building as the old Uhls Sanitarium, about 20+ acres that the Nichols Company had recently purchased because it “lies in the path of the greatest growth trend in Kansas City’s area.” This was 1932. J.C. knew his stuff. The area around 75th and Metcalf was, in fact, along the very path of Johnson County growth.

The Nichols Company Scrapbooks

Having never heard of the Uhls Sanitarium, I wanted to know what and where this place had been. I knew better than to think anything that had stood in Johnson County in 1932 “in the path of the greatest growth trend” would be there today. That led me to the Johnson County Historical Society, which had two photos from the early 1990s of the same main building, but evidently the “jungle” had been cleared. The info accompanying the photo told me it was built in 1910 (I later learn that’s not exactly right, but more on that next time). It tells me that the site, at 74th and Metcalf was “a sanitarium” but doesn’t mention “Uhls.”

Most interesting of all, though, is that it tells me that it is – or was? – the Kansas College & Bible School. A quick search of the school led me to the website of Kansas Christian College, the school’s current name. The college evidently bought the property from the Nichols Company in 1941. Incredibly, the school is still there at the sanitarium site on Metcalf, even if the buildings aren’t. But still, this is fascinating. Nichols bought the property in 1932 with grand plans for long-term development, yet less than a decade later, the company sold it to the school. Why? Was it the lagging development pace brought about by the Great Depression? Was it an expediency, a way to cash out and invest in other property? None of the resources revealed a definitive answer. But I was soon learning about the Uhls, the family that founded and ran the facility.

Dr. Lyman Uhls was the founder of the Uhls Sanitarium. Uhls had been the superintendent of the Osawatomie State Hospital (previously called the State Insane Asylum), and had a sterling professional reputation throughout Kansas. He was a frequent speaker on mental health, an advisor to the state on management of its s hospitals, and was even a one-time candidate for the state legislature. Before his death in 1920, the senior Uhls had expanded the business considerably by selling shares in the clinic and by opening up locations throughout the state, one of which was in Hutchison.

So that was the origins story of the Uhls Sanitarium, a near-forgotten piece of Johnson County history. But I kept reading those newspapers, and soon learned that the real story here was about the end of the Uhls Sanitarium, and those shares Dr. Uhls had sold to generate capital for the clinic’s expansion.  In a few short years, those shares would be the catalyst for the Uhls name transforming from one of the most trusted in the state of Kansas to the most reviled during the 1930s. But more about that tomorrow.

(Photo Credit: An early photo (circa 1930) of the Uhls Sanitarium shows some of the individual residential buildings. The lush landscape adds to the mysterious aura of the sanitarium. Image courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri, Nichols Company Manuscript Collection.)

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