The Leper’s Gravestone

Sanitorio Duran is an abandoned leper colony, built in the first decade of the 20th century, high atop the active Irazú Volcano in the remote village of Tierras Blancas, Costa Rica. Originally built as a teaching hospital, it served as a long-term care facility for lepers and TB patients for the much of the first half of the 20th century. The facility’s use for serving these outcast patient populations was due to its remote location and crisp, clean air at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.

Sanitorio Duran’s patient population came largely from Mexico and neighboring countries in Central America and was staffed by both Catholic nuns and civilian medical staff. Sanitorio Duran would later serve as a prison hospital for adult males during the 1950s, and for juvenile males in the 1960s until it was closed after a juvenile inmate nearly burnt the entire facility down. A skeleton staff of nuns and lay people remained after the hospital and patient dormitories were closed, and they have used the expansive grounds to raise horses and cattle until the present day.

The International Olympic Committee purchased Sanitorio Duran and additional farmland surrounding it in 2006. The Committee selected this site, in part, due to the same reasons it was an ideal location for treating lepers and TB patients: a remote, high altitude location with extraordinarily crisp, clean air. The Committee plans to restore and renovate many of the beautiful, Spanish Colonial sanitarium buildings and incorporate them into the expansive new Olympic facility that will be used to train athletes from countries across the world.

Nuns, priests, and lepers were buried side-by-side in Sanitorio Duran’s cemetery, which sits a short distance from the compound on a high, grassy knoll. The cemetery is privately owned by an elderly farmer and his family, who donated it to the town of Tierras Blancas on the condition that the government would properly maintain it. The town had not lived up to its maintenance agreement, so in 2006, the farmer took back the cemetery that was surrounded by his adjoining farmland. He plowed over the few remaining grave sites, many of which were infested by colonies of wasps, to grow more potatoes and carrots. Just before the cemetery was plowed over, the right arm of one of the leper’s gravestones was saved by the 18th owner of The Luke Miller House, who happened to be traveling in the area; he had befriend the old farmer, and asked permission to save a relic from the site for historical architectural restoration purposes. The farmer obliged, and the stone arm was transported back to the US.

The gravestone remnant, which resembled a fleur de lis, was sliced in half by a master bricklayer during restoration and renovation work within The Luke Miller House. The two symmetrical pieces were set opposite each other, at an elevated height, in a place of quiet dignity within a beautiful new plaster and reclaimed brick wall. Thus, in 2006, the memory of an unknown leper was preserved in the 11th hour, just as The Luke Miller House had been saved from demolition in the 11th hour the previous year. If you visit The Luke Miller House, search for the matching halves of the right arm of the leper’s gravestone. The pair face each other within a secluded alcove in the heart of the home, where they quietly add to the enduring character, charm, and mystery of Madison’s most beloved historic home.