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Architecture of Madness

Architecture of Madness

By Pooja Bhatia


You’ve got to be a little nuts to renovate a 19th-century, 500,000-square-foot asylum. But some cities are doing it anyway.

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

What to do when the inmates have left the asylum? 

It sounds like a riddle, but it’s a dilemma in cities like Buffalo, N.Y., Fergus Falls, Minn., even Washington, D.C. There, asylums constructed in the latter half of the 19th century — called Kirkbride buildings, after the physician who dreamed them up — have long outlived the idea that made them: that architecture can cure the mentally ill. Today, the patients are gone, mostly. Gothic palaces remain. Kirkbrides sprawl over hundreds of thousands of square feet, with Victorian facades, high ceilings and light-filled corridors and pastoral grounds. 

Architectural wonders, no doubt — but oh, the upkeep! Maintaining such vast buildings was never easy, but after institutionalization fell decisively out of favor in the 1970s and 1980s, many Kirkbrides became as neglected as some of their patients once were. Today, the Kirkbrides that still exist pose a serious challenge to municipal governments. Most cities wish to adapt the old asylum — somehow — but lack the lucre for rehabilitation and maintenance. As a result, dozens upon dozens of Kirkbrides have been demolished.

For preservationists, the Kirkbrides are objects of architectural and historical value, with good bones, besides. But renewal takes a lot of will. And money. Critics say they’re monstrosities that should just be demolished. 

Interior of hallway

Mayfield House

Source Forsake Fotos

In Fergus Falls, Minnesota, many are watching to see if a Georgia developer can make good on its intent to convert the asylum into apartments, a spa, a restaurant and a 120-room hotel. Meanwhile, in Parsipanny, N.J., preservationists are trying to save its Greystone Hospital from the wrecking ball. The state government feels otherwise: “The structure’s massive size, advanced deterioration and challenging configuration present unique obstacles to an economically viable, historic redevelopment,” New Jersey official Joseph Perone said last week. Greystone enthusiasts argue the $50 million demolition would exact a psychic toll on the community and is unnecessary, given private developer interest. 

Still, the most ardent preservationists concede that the Kirkbride buildings pose a huge challenge. One Money Pit horror story comes courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security, which plans to quarter in St. Elizabeths Hospital (formerly the Government Hospital for the Insane). The renovation is 11 years behind schedule and several billion dollars over budget.

Even the Kirkbrides that are in reasonable shape are so massive and particular that “they’re complicated to reuse. They really require people with great vision and a lot of money,” says Monica Pellegrino Faix, executive director of the Richardson Center Corporation, which manages the property once known as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. The first part of a $76.5 million overhaul there has been completed; this summer, builders will start on an 88-room boutique hotel. 

Exterior of Weston State Hospital

Weston State Hospital in West Virginia is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in the U.S. and second-largest in the world. The design follows the Kirkbride plan, which is a system of mental asylum design advocated by psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride in the mid-1800s.

Source Donnie Nunley

In the latter half of the 19th century, some 300 hospitals around the country were designed according to the precepts of Thomas Story Kirkbride, a physician who focused on mental illness. For Kirkbride and his contemporaries, environmental settings played a profound role in psychic wellness. “Officially sanctioned medical journals were replete with articles on architecture, a constant preoccupation for asylum superintendents,” writes scholar Carla Yanni in her study of American asylums, The Architecture of Madness. Inhabitants would get plenty of fresh air and sunlight. There would be a garden or farm nearby where they could work. And the exteriors of the buildings would project dignity and civic responsibility. 

Unfortunately, many of the Kirkbrides instead became bastions of neglect. Magnificent facades and streaming sunlight couldn’t quell bias against the mentally ill, says Yanni. Then there was overcrowding: Asylums built for 600 patients would house 1,000 or more. “The nicest building in the world can become run-down and derelict if it’s overcrowded,” Yanni says. 

A few Kirkbrides still function as hospitals for the mentally ill. Some, like Tuscaloosa’s Bryce Hospital, needed significant renovation and had to overcome a history of inhumane treatment. It reopened last month. Others have tried to parlay their histories into goth entertainment, with haunted house tours and the like. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, in West Virginia, features Zombie Paintball and Asylum Drag Shows.

Adaptation and reuse are harder. Sometimes a Don Quixote developer can do it, as in Traverse City, Mich. In the early 2000s, its Kirkbride was slated for destruction. Irked, local developer Ray Minervini acquired the 400,000-square-foot property for a dollar from the state, intending to remake it into an upscale, mixed-use complex. “No one took him seriously,” says his 50-year-old son, Raymond, who works with him. “We had never undertaken such a thing.” 

Today, after $60 million in investments and some helpful tax breaks, the Village at Grand Traverse Commons is up and running: “The firehouse has become a bakery, the potato-peeling shack a cheesecake store and the laundry a wine bar and fair-trade coffee shop,” writes one reviewer. The Minervinis say that when construction finishes,1,000 people will live there and 800 will work there.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, in Buffalo, is likely the most star-studded of the rehabs, with big-name architects and a $76.5-million pot from New York State. Work began last year, and groundbreaking on the boutique hotel will start this summer. It’s expected to open in July 2016. 

But getting there wasn’t easy or fast. “There was an effort for many years to save the buildings,” says Pellegrino Faix. It started with the listing of the building on the National Register of Historic Places, in the 1970s, she says. When the state put the hospital up for sale in 1998, preservation advocates, including government officials, lobbied hard and long to remove the site from sale. There was a class action lawsuit. Then-Governor George Pataki’s administration made a $100-million grant for historic preservation in Buffalo, including the former hospital. 

“We were lucky,” says Pellegrino Faix. “The [preservationists’] passion and vision and love they had — it really takes all of that, and much more, to carry something like this through.” 

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

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