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Asylum Seeker

by Jo Page on February 25, 2010

Thanks to Shutter Island, asylums, particularly scary, fabled ones, are big news right now.

On the other hand, there has always been something fascinating and horrible about these places with their intimidating size and intricate architecture. It turns out, that’s not just a coincidence. There really is something about those 19th-century mental hospitals.

This morning I read a story in the Los Angeles Times about the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, W.V.

The name alone sends the creepy-crawlies up your spine.

Like so many other 19th-century institutions built to house the mentally ill—as well as the tubercular—the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum has been closed as a hospital since 1994, as new therapies for treating mental illness were developed.

Now the building is serving a tourist population, offering themed tours throughout the year, including an Overnight at the Asylum Ghost Hunt. Sign me up.

Docent Andrea Lamb, dressed in 19th-century nursing garb and wearing a shawl for warmth—the building is deteriorating and unheated—showed visitors around the four-story, rambling-winged structure. And just as Shutter Island, The Jacket and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tell stories of abuses and excesses, real life stories of abuses happened here many times over.

Children were kept in cages. Shock treatment and lobotomies were regularly performed, with lobotomized patients living at the asylum as late as the 1980s.

“In 1872,” Lamb said, “if a [married woman’s] husband had a mistress or she inherited money . . . he could sign her in and leave her until he decided to come back and get her—or until she died, whichever came first.”

Curiously, though, the advent of the 19th-century “asylum” for treating—or at least housing—the mentally ill was meant to be a step forward from how they had previously been dealt with, which was almost invariably barbaric: chaining them in prisons, stashing them away in attics and sheds.

A curiously-worded quotation on the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Web site, seems more optimistic than accurate: “The 1800s brought much-needed change to the world of the insane.”

Reformers, notably Dorothea Dix, campaigned for more humane treatment of the mentally ill. The era of the asylum began when the first state mental hospital built according to “the Kirkbride Plan” opened in Trenton, N.J., in 1848—this ironically was the place where, late in life, Dix became a resident and died.

But a big part of the reason that 19th-century asylums for the mentally ill remain fascinating—and frightening—is because of their architecture.

Most were built according to the aforementioned Kirkbride Plan. In keeping with the then-prominent notion that architecture was integral to curing mental illness, Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride developed principles of asylum construction and operation that he believed to be central components in treating patients.

His envisioned asylums which housed about 250 patients, with central administration buildings flanked by wings within which were tiered wards. This allowed for a hierarchical segregation of patients according to sex and symptoms of illness. The genders were housed separately and more “excitable” patients were placed on the lower floors, farthest from the central administrative structure, and the better-behaved, more rational patients situated in the upper floors and closer to the administrative center.

As the popularity of the asylum grew in the middle-to-late 19th century, these huge buildings were constructed according to the Kirkbride plan. Over time deteriorating patient care and overcrowding led to the frightening stigma that these buildings carry today.

For example, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was built between 1858 and 1881 and is, next to the Kremlin, the largest hand-cut stone building in the world. Originally designed to house 250 patients, by the 1950s conditions and care at the institution had gravely deteriorated even as the patient populations swelled to 2400.

And that was largely the trajectory of the asylum: early reputations for good care later marred by overcrowding and abuses.

At the Kirkbride Buildings Web site are a trove of photographs of these massive edifices, some demolished, some still standing, but in disrepair. Besides their size, they have in common both their florid architectural design and a genuine an air of foreboding.

Dr. Kirkbride may have had the best of intentions, but it’s hard to look at images of Buffalo State Hospital or Dixmont State Hospital in Pennsylvania or Greystone Park Hospital in Morristown, N.J. (built to offset overcrowding at the Trenton), and imagine these as welcoming havens for the unbalanced. If anything, these buildings would seem to worsen insanity.

So it’s little wonder that an asylum practically counts as a main character on lots of movies. Shutter Island was partially filmed at the Medford State Hospital.

The atmospheric and lurid 2001 cult film, Session 9, was filmed at the now-demolished Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. The Jacket, released in 2005, was shot in Bangour Village Hospital in Scotland (this hospital, as were many others, was built according to “the Cottage Plan” which differed significantly from the Kirkbride Plan).

And the ultimate iconic asylum movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? It was filmed at Oregon State Hospital–built in 1883, according to the Kirkbride Plan. Its story is the same as most asylums: Though parts of it have deteriorated, it remains in operation with a continuing reputation of overcrowding and sub- standard medical care.