Hans Einstein says he has driven by the Keene off-ramp hundreds of times over the past five decades as he traveled between Bakersfield and Tehachapi on Highway 58. But only rarely did he briefly stop to show visitors -- mostly from out of town -- where Kern County's tuberculosis sanitarium once was located.

It wasn't until just a few weeks ago that Einstein, who was the sanitarium's assistant medical director in the 1950s, returned for a real visit -- a look around that stirred memories.

Einstein returned as a guest of the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation. The late farmworker advocate Cesar Chavez's social and labor organization purchased the sanitarium and surrounding 187 acres of land from Kern County in 1971. Commonly referred to as La Paz, the compound in Keene became a refuge for Chavez, his family and his supporters, and a headquarters for the organization. After his 1993 death, the complex was renamed the National Chavez Center.

A master plan for continuing Chavez's legacy and renovating the compound resulted in the construction in 2004 of a visitors' center, museum and memorial garden, where Chavez's remains are buried.

The second phase called for the construction of a conference and retreat center, which will open officially June 26, with a daylong celebration.

Rather than build a structure for the center, the foundation renovated an abandoned children's hospital built in 1929 by the county, on the property north of the sanitarium.

It was that $6 million renovation -- partially funded by a $2.5 million grant from the California Cultural and Heritage Endowment of the California State Library, plus matching funds and volunteer labor and supplies from donors -- that Einstein was invited back to see.

"They did a very good job," said Einstein, acknowledging that his return visit stirred memories, but "so much also had changed." He commended the effort of restoring the children's hospital, which was called the preventorium when he cared for the county's many tuberculosis patients at the sanitarium.

TB therapy: 'Fresh air and sunshine'

"TB was once the number one illness," Einstein recalled during a recent interview. "It was a medical problem all over the world."

With the advent of germ theories and the knowledge that infectious diseases can be transported through the respiratory tract, treatment and prevention included isolating patients.

"It was also believed that fresh air and sunshine should be part of the treatment," he recalled, explaining the establishment of sanitariums in sunny, mountainous regions. "Patients would spend most of their days on big porches."

Einstein, a Quaker of Jewish origin, was born in Berlin. When the Nazis came to power, he fled Germany with his mother and sister. In 1928, Einstein's mother was diagnosed with TB and isolated in a sanitarium in Switzerland. The 5-year-old Einstein was placed in a "preventorium" on the sanitarium's grounds.

It was common to place children in "preventoriums" near their hospitalized parents, Einstein explained. Preventoriums housed otherwise healthy children, who may have been exposed to the disease. Young residents also were admitted for being underweight or "fragile."

The discovery in 1943 of streptomycin, the first antibiotic remedy for TB, resulted in the eventual abandonment of sanitariums and preventoriums to isolate patients.

After earning a medical degree from New York Medical College in 1946, Einstein completed an internship at Paterson General Hospital in New Jersey, a tour of duty as a medical officer in the U.S. Army, and residencies in internal medicine and pulmonary diseases at the New York Veterans Hospital. He then moved with his young family to Bakersfield, where he completed a residency at Kern General Hospital.

It was during this residency that he began moonlighting at the county's tuberculosis sanitarium in Keene. In 1952, he became the assistant medical director.

When you hear the car horn, start the anesthesia

Among memories stirred by his visit were Einstein's recollections of trips made to Keene by Southern California surgeons to operate on sanitarium patients.

"When the [surgeon's] car turned off the road and headed up the ridge, he would blow his horn and the guy at the gas station would call us," Einstein laughed. "That would mean we would start the anesthesia and we would be ready for him. It worked pretty well."

Einstein also recalled that the sanitarium was staffed by local people, primarily from two families that lived in Keene. The problem was that the families feuded, often refusing to cooperate or speak.

"We had to sit them down and tell them that we didn't care what they did after work. But when they were here, they had to speak and get along, or they all would be canned," Einstein recalled.

As Chavez's son, Paul Chavez, led a tour around the grounds, the 87-year-old Einstein recalled the many days he climbed the hills behind the preventorium with his oldest daughter.

After leaving the sanitarium's staff, Einstein became a prominent Bakersfield physician, the medical director of Bakersfield Memorial Hospital and a recognized expert on valley fever, a sometimes fatal regional airborne disease. He also continues to see TB patients at a Kern County Health Department clinic.

The sanitarium and preventorium in Keene were damaged in the 1952 Tehachapi-Bakersfield earthquakes and closed by Kern County in the late 1960s.

In applying for the state grant to assist with the preventorium's renovation, the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation noted that the Keene complex has historical significance for Kern County residents, as well as those involved in the farmworker organizing effort.

Dennis Dahlin, the Sacramento-based project coordinator, explained that besides money from the state grant and payments from the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, much of the work and supplies for the center were volunteered by companies and individuals.

"A lot of people in construction wanted to get involved because they believe in the cause," he said.

Using original drawings on file with Kern County, San Diego architect Carlos Rodriguez prepared renovation plans to comply with current building codes. Areas such as the children's dormitories were given an open, airy feeling by removing dropped ceiling and exposing wooden beams. Nearly all the windows have been replaced and a courtyard constructed to link the complex's buildings.

As with the visitor center, museum and memorial gardens, native materials have been used for much of the construction, said Monica Parra, the center's conference and events manager.

"Dad believed ordinary people can do extraordinary things," said Paul Chavez, president of the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation. But to do extraordinary things, Chavez recognized that people need to be trained and inspired.

Training and inspiring people to work for their communities will be the center's primary use. In addition, it can be rented by groups and individuals for conference and social events, including weddings, by calling Parra at 823-6271.

The center's celebration Saturday is open to the public. Kern County residents, who years ago passed through the doors of the former sanitarium and preventorium, as well as the thousands of people who helped build the farm worker movement are being invited to return to Keene to tour the historic facility.