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Old asylums decay, but some eye pricey restoration

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —  Equal parts graceful and eerie, massive brick and stone asylums once loomed over towns from Maine to California as the 19th century's ideal for the humane treatment of the mentally ill.

Ornate facades, turrets, sprawling grounds and sheer palatial size belied the name mental hospital. Known as Kirkbride buildings, for the Pennsylvania physician who inspired them, they flourished for half a century.

Today the forces of age and neglect, together with a century of changes in treating mental illness, have slashed the ranks of Kirkbride asylums to a handful that will need ambitious developers to save them from collapse. Many of the surviving buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, but restoring them is not easy. The colossal structures face a slow demolition by decay because of the enormous cost of maintenance, let alone renovation.

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany, N.J., is a prime example. The 132-year-old neo-Gothic building was the largest poured-concrete structure in the U.S. before the Pentagon was built.

Many people _ from preservationists to developers to elected officials _ want to see it saved, but keep hitting the same wall.

"Ultimately, it comes down to money," said Carrie Fellows, the director of the Morris County Heritage Commission. "It would take unfathomable millions. Multiple millions and millions of dollars."

That's the problem for communities grappling with the physical legacy of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, who at one time influenced the construction of nearly every mental hospital in the country.

Kirkbride in 1854 proposed a model for asylums: campuses sprawled over hundreds of acres where patients would live in self-contained communities, with the centerpiece a beautiful, enormous building that Kirkbride wanted to resemble the finest hotels of the time.

"The building became part of the treatment," said Nancy Tomes, chairwoman of the Stony Brook University history department and the author of "The Art of Asylum-Keeping," about the Kirkbride model. "The idea was to design a building that would actually help your mind recover."

That approach lost favor in the 20th century and after World War II, a series of court decisions and the development of psychiatric medications led to the closure of asylums around the country.

Neighboring communities were left to ponder whether to find some new use for the massive structures or raze them.

In dozens of places, the answer was the bulldozer. The buildings were either too dilapidated or there was no money for restoration. From the hundreds of Kirkbride hospitals that once existed, about 30 are left in 20 states, in conditions from developed to derelict.

Even those in need of costly repairs, though, can inspire a certain swashbuckling optimism.

Last year, Morgantown asbestos contractor Joe Jordan bought the former Weston State Hospital in northern West Virginia, which at 242,000 square feet is one of the largest hand-cut sandstone buildings in the world. Jordan gave the property one of its earlier names, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, and opened part of it to tours and other events to raise money for its restoration.

The goal is to turn the asylum into a hotel, along the lines of a former Kirkbride facility in Traverse City, Mich., said Jordan's daughter, Rebecca Jordan-Gleason.

It won't be easy. Repairing the roof will cost about $5 million, and Jordan-Gleason said it took three months just to clean the portion of the hospital now open to tours. The attempts to raise money for the restoration have also met protests from some mental health advocates, who say ghost tours and the loaded word "lunatic" are offensive to former patients.

"It's hard, but at the end of the day, when you walk around to the front of the building and look up at it, you remember why you're doing this," Jordan-Gleason said.

In Alabama, state officials and preservationists are developing a plan to save the 147-year-old Bryce Hospital, a cradle of civil rights for American mental patients. It now houses only offices.

Built on the eve of the Civil War, Bryce was horribly overcrowded by 1970, with only three psychiatrists for about 5,300 patients.

In 1972, a federal judge in a lawsuit over Bryce said mental patients had a constitutional right to individual care aimed at a cure, a precedent-setting decision that led to similar decisions elsewhere.

"The civil rights movement for people with mental disabilities started right here," said John Ziegler, a spokesman with the state mental health agency. "It had a profound effect on millions of people all over this country."

In Northampton, Mass., the debate over a Kirkbride property lasted nearly 30 years. It is now the site of a development called Village Hill that mixes housing units with commercial properties, but the decaying historic main building had to be torn down when the third floor collapsed into the basement.

"We got backed into supporting the demolition of buildings that maybe we did want to reuse," remembered Mayor Clare Higgins. "The buildings people had the most emotional attachment to couldn't be preserved."

The demolition alone cost the state about $7 million.

One of the most successful renovations is at the former Athens State Hospital in Ohio, which was taken over by Ohio University in 1988.

Renamed The Ridges, the campus has become home to the Kennedy Museum of Art, Ohio University Press, biotech labs, the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and even a child development center in what had been the asylum's horse barn.

"We've done some absolutely beautiful renovations here," OU architect Pam Callahan said. "But it is a challenge for the university to maintain the buildings."

The university occupies about 40 percent of the roughly 720,000 available square feet, a space nearly four times larger than a typical Wal-Mart Supercenter.

"Even in a mothballed condition, buildings still need heat in the winter, roofs need to be repaired, windows need to be repaired," she said. "A threat is that the buildings will deteriorate to such a point that the buildings are not reclaimable."

For Ethan McElroy, who has photographed nearly every remaining Kirkbride facility for his Web site, that would be a tragedy.

"Each one is one of a kind, and will never be built again," he said. "The skills that went into building them just don't exist anymore, at least not to the same degree. They're historical treasures."


Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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