All across the United States stand great buildings erected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as hospitals (or asylums) for the mentally ill. There used to be more; many have fallen under the wrecking ball. Few of those that remain are still in use; the rest are abandoned, falling prey to the elements and lack of upkeep. The thing that these imposing, eerie, typically Gothic-style buildings have in common is that they were all designed after the plan of pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride.

Would that pictures could accompany this article! The main source for this piece is a photo-rich website which displays some of the remaining buildings. The photographs reveal the structures in their faded glory. Although, in the interior shots, the sun tries hard to peek in from boarded-up windows and doorways; the overall effect of viewing the pictures can conjure images of the many souls once housed in these buildings, wandering aimlessly now, as ghosts. The result is a feeling that's creepy, at best.

The "Moral Treatment" Milieu

Until the latter half of the nineteenth century, individuals in the U.S. who were mentally retarded or mentally ill were more often than not kept in prisons and "poor-houses." As the population of mentally ill persons increased, however, activists for the humane treatment of the mentally ill put pressure on society to follow Europe's lead into the twentieth century with new methods of diagnosing and treating mentally ill persons. This resulted in the construction throughout the country of hospitals which were constructed adhering to a book published by Philadelphia psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride's book, On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane, goes into great detail about how the buildings themselves could be therapeutic.

The heart of the Kirkbride architecture was at the center; the Administrative area of the hospital. On both sides of these typically imposing structures were L-shaped wings which cascaded horizontally away from the center of the structure. One of the goals was to allow patients fresh air, natural light and plenty of views of the park-like grounds surrounding the building. The buildings were typically four to eight stories high.

 ____                                                              ____
|    |                                                            |    |
|    |                        ___________                         |    |
|    |____                   |           |                    ____|    |
|         |                  |     A     |                   |         |
|_____    |__________        |     D     |         __________|    _____|
      |              |_______|     M     |________|              |
      |________                    I                   __________|
               |  WARDS            N            WARDS |
               |                   I                  |
               |__________         S        __________|
                          |        T       |
                          |        R       |
                          |        A       | The Kirkbride
                          |        T       | Archetypal Asylum Layout
                          |        I       |
                          |        O       |
                          |        N       |

These "enlightened" asylums intended to provide seclusion from stressors and causes of illness, improving activities and therapies, and medical treatment. The patients were segregated by sex and degree of illness.

Kirkbride believed that it was imperative to provide a cheerful atmosphere, away from urban confusion. Many asylums, beside having acres of park-like grounds, also featured a working farm. Patients could perform tasks in the farm as part of therapy. Moreover, the product of the farming saved the state money. Ideally, the asylum would be somewhat self-sufficient.

Beside structured chores, patients were encouraged to engage in recreation and provided entertainment. This was to develop social skills and improve attitude.

No Place in Twentieth Century Psychiatric Treatment.

Sadly, by the beginning of the twentieth century there emerged a troubling trend. It seemed that there was no empirical evidence that indicated that patients were being cured. There was also no reduction in the number of mentally ill persons presenting at the hospitals. The mental health care system was impelled to utilize alternative treatments, and Kirkbride's "moral plan" fell by the wayside. It didn't help that the existing Kirkbride buildings were often under-funded and overcrowded.

Today the old-fashioned "state hospital system" is a thing of the past. Group homes, new psychopharmaceutical techniques and new approaches to inpatient treatment have evolved.

Once a shining new model of progress, the Kirkbride buildings which remain have become mostly abandoned if only for the sheer cost of renovation.

The Remaining Buildings

Here's a short list of fine examples of Kirkbride buildings (Note: for most, if not all, a distant exterior view is all one can achieve; trespassers, even on the grounds, are prohibited from both the buildings still in use and those which are boarded up):

Athens State Hospital
Completed: 1874
Location: Athens, Ohio

Buffalo State Hospital
Completed: 1895
Location: Buffalo, New York

Cherokee State Hospital
Completed: 1902
Location: Cherokee, Iowa

Clarinda State Hospital
Completed: 1895
Location: Clarinda, Iowa

Danvers State Hospital
Completed: 1878
Location: Danvers, Massachusetts

Dixmont State Hospital
Completed: 1862
Location: Dixmont Township, Pennsylvania

Fergus Falls State Hospital
Completed: 1906
Location: Fergus Falls, Minnesota

Greystone Park State Hospital
Completed: 1876
Location: Morristown, New Jersey

Hudson River State Hospital (mothballed but one of the most interesting buildings, architecturally; on a beautiful setting)
Completed: 1871
Location: Poughkeepsie, New York

Independence State Hospital
Completed: 1873
Location: Independence, Iowa

Northampton State Hospital
Completed: 1858
Location: Northampton, Massachusetts

Taunton State Hospital
Completed: 1854
Location: Taunton, Massachusetts

Traverse City State Hospital
Completed: 1885
Location: Traverse City, Michigan

Weston State Hospital
Completed: 1880
Location: Weston, West Virginia

Worcester State Hospital
Completed: 1877
Architect: Ward P. Delano
Location: Worcester, Massachusetts



  • Webpage of Kirkbride building and architecture enthusiast Ethan McElroy:
  • About Kirkbride's Philadelphia hospital and Dr. Kirkbride:
  • Historic Asylums Message Board:
  • Kirkbride Mental Health Center, Philadelphia, PA:


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