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Sanatorium Joseph Lemaire

Sanatorium Joseph Lemaire

Modernist sanatorium near Brussels

The Joseph Lemaire sanatorium in the Belgian town of Overijse is one of the most famous modernist sanatoriums in the world.

The photos leave no doubt: what was once a palace was a concrete ruin for years. But how did it get to this point? Why was this monument left to decay? To answer the question, let's dive back into history.

La Prévoyance Sociale

At the beginning of the last century, tuberculosis was rampant. In 1897, 17,000 people in Belgium died from this serious lung disease. In 1933, the social insurance company La Prévoyance Sociale (PS) commissioned architect Maxime Brunfaut to design a convalescent home for tuberculosis patients. The location was in a beautiful nature reserve in Tombeek near Overijse, about twenty kilometers from Brussels.

The sanatorium opened its doors on September 21, 1937. Everyone praised the design and ultra-modern equipment. The enthusiasm was not limited to the Belgian borders; this building was also one of a kind for leading doctors from abroad.

All buildings bear witness to the modern architecture of the 1930s: the function of the building dictates the form and design. Yet, the sanatorium was an architectural masterpiece of that time. For the first time in Belgium, an exterior facade was covered with cream-colored wall tiles. This was not an unqualified success because the tiles soon came loose from the facade in some places.

Life in the sanatorium

Rest, clean air, healthy food, and plenty of light should help the patient recover during his stay in the sanatorium. The large windows were only closed for three hours a day, so fresh air almost always circulated through the building. Patients could rest on the large terraces.

The treatment lasted an average of eight months, so recreation also played an important role in the sanatorium, which included a library, a reading room and a small games room. The banquet hall served not only for the patients but also for outsiders.

The sanatorium was a showpiece of the social insurance company PS. Large monumental letters on the roof could be seen from far away. A mosaic with the PS coat of arms was incorporated into the entrance's white-black marble floor.

An impressive stair system separated patients' and visitors' traffic. Visitors were only welcome in the consultation and the party room, so the risk of contamination remained minimal.

A new destination, in vain

In thirty years, the sanatorium treated approximately ten thousand sick people; until 1952, antibiotics caused a rapid decline in the number of TB patients.

The sanatorium was adapted and modernized. The Joseph Lemaire Institute was reopened in 1968 as a rehabilitation center for the long-term ill and people with disabilities.

However, the hospital did not survive the drastic savings plans that the Martens government issued in the mid-1980s. Plans to convert the hospital into a nursing home failed at the last minute, and the building closed its doors.

Concrete ruin

The architectural gem became a ruin after 20 years of vacancy. Even though the building officially became a protected monument in 1992, no one really knew what to do with it. The sanatorium came into focus as an asylum center or hospital, but ultimately, it remained empty.

Emblematic of the building's underestimated value was a fire drill that got out of hand in 1993—after the building's legal protection—during which the fire started by the fire brigade was not extinguished quickly enough. Part of the second floor went up in flames.

Care center

In 2010, a new owner unfolded plans for a residential care center, which the Flemish government partly financed. Ultimately, it would take until Monday, June 12, 2017, before the sanatorium reopened its doors as "Residentie Tombeekheyde," a residential care center.

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