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Thread: Urbanite: Ghost Hospitals

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    Reality Hacker Dan's Avatar
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    Feb 2006
    Baltimore, MD

    Default Urbanite: Ghost Hospitals

    Who is Roger Lemoyne?

    Urbanite #64 October 09
    By: Sarah Richards

    In Maryland’s abandoned institutions for the mentally ill and disabled, lessons from the past.

    A bathing room at the now-defunct Rosewood Center in Owings Mills sits empty. Rosewood opened in 1888 as the “Asylum and Training School for the Feeble Minded” and closed last June. As with most abandoned psychiatric hospitals, vandals have left their mark at Rosewood, despite the warnings that the sites are contaminated by hazardous materials. Still, wheelchairs, furniture, specially adapted baths for the handicapped, and Christmas decorations are scattered around the facilities, along with soggy piles of shredded records, reports, and daily logbooks. | photo by Roger Lemoyne

    Over the course of the past fifty years, America has abandoned many of its historic psychiatric hospitals, slipping out of them quietly as if trying to erase from public memory a troubling chapter of its history. Scattered throughout the country, most of these grand edifices now sit empty and unused, visited only by vandals and urban explorers.

    Around Baltimore, several of these forgotten institutions have been reduced to hulking confluences of raw materials. Like a mind slowly losing its faculties, these buildings are giving way to age. Some have partially collapsed roofs; others, peeling paint and broken windows. The moistness of summer mixes with stale attic smell. Outside, overgrown trees and vines wrap their fingers through windowpanes and around guardrails. There is absolute silence, aside from the birds.

    Others appear much as they did the day they closed. The Crownsville Hospital Center near Annapolis, which was created in 1910 as a home to the “Negro insane,” was shuttered in 2004. Today, a visitor finds a laundry cart stacked full of colorful quilted blankets standing in the facility’s laundry room and photographs of smiling children—hospital employees’ kids, perhaps—tacked up on a bulletin board. A calendar reads “June 2004.”

    For those suffering from mental illness, these psychiatric hospitals were once the last stop, a final hope for family members
    no longer capable of caring for a schizophrenic uncle or bipolar sister. When caregivers ran out of money—or the raw, endless patience required to care for someone with a serious mental illness—there was no other place to turn.

    One of numerous beds in a partitioned room at the Crownsville Hospital Center looks like it could have been slept in yesterday; in fact, the hospital closed in 2004. Today, Crownsville’s massive historic buildings and roughly 600 sprawling acres are cared for by a handful of groundskeepers who spend summer days endlessly cutting grass. Inside the buildings, the walls are decorated with artwork done by patients, including a large mural replicating a Van Gogh painting. | photo by Roger Lemoyne

    Deep in the woods of Patapsco Valley State Park stand the remains of Henryton State Hospital. Built in the 1920s as a tuberculosis hospital for African Americans, it eventually became a facility for the developmentally disabled. By 1985, when Henryton closed, the buildings required substantial renovations and no longer suited a community-treatment approach. Henryton’s beautiful, almost Cuban-colonial buildings have been heavily damaged by vandals. The state is in the process of turning the site over to the Department of Natural Resources, which will likely tear the buildings down. Officials estimate that will cost $5 million. | photo by Roger Lemoyne

    From the outside, many of these institutions appeared to be peaceful sanctuaries. Built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the buildings’ architecture reflected the belief that patients’ surroundings played a role in their well-being. These hospitals were built to emphasize light and ventilation and were often placed in pastoral settings so that patients could benefit from the closeness of nature. Hospitals like the historic Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont espoused “moral treatment,” a Quaker-inspired approach that included having capable patients work at the hospital’s dairy farm.

    Inside the walls, however, the picture was not so pretty. Over the years, treatments included hydrotherapy, electroshock therapy, and even lobotomies. By World War II, many psych hospitals had become victims of deplorable under-budgeting and overcrowding. In 1949, the Baltimore Sun ran a series called “Maryland’s Shame” that exposed the shocking conditions at state hospitals; at night, the paper noted, some patients were covered in their own feces and lay on bare mattresses without blankets.

    Stories like these, combined with “miracle” drugs like Thorazine that made mental patients more manageable outside the hospital setting, ushered in a long process of deinstitutionalization. Today, Maryland still has eight inpatient psychiatric facilities, institutions that treated 2,886 people in the past year. Still, the facilities are smaller, patient stays are shorter, and most are treated as outpatients.

    Deinstitutionalization has come with its own set of problems, however. Outside the hospital, the mentally ill are left to navigate a labyrinth of medical and housing services. Many end up on the streets or in prison. “Some are in nursing homes. An awful lot are being treated in outpatient clinics, community clinics,” says Jonathan Engel, a professor specializing in the history of U.S. health and social welfare policy at Baruch College in New York City. “Probably the bulk—the ones from the poorest, most dysfunctional families—are rotating through psychiatric wards of public hospitals.”

    Old gaming tables, a grand piano, and two large film projectors dot the auditorium at the Warfield Complex, part of the 113-year-old Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville. Springfield once treated more than three thousand psych patients and even had its own railroad line. Some of the hospital’s modernized facilities continue to operate today, while two of the old buildings have been made into office space and a dance school. Sykesville hopes other businesses or organizations will take over larger spaces like this one and a cafeteria on the first floor. | photo by Roger Lemoyne

    Some mental health experts argue that deinstitutionalization has gone too far. “You really don’t cure people with a severe mental illness,” says Gerald Grob, a Rutgers University professor emeritus of medical history. “For people with a severe mental illness, what you have to do is manage it. Life will never be what we call ‘great’ for them. But you want to put them in a situation where life is at least tolerable.”

    For some, he says, life would be more tolerable in a hospital. But after decades of housing the mentally disabled, most of our abandoned institutions would themselves require acute rehabilitation before they could ever be put into service again. There are exceptions: The 120-year-old Agnews Insane Asylum in California, which closed in 1995, landed a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and was transformed into the corporate headquarters of Sun Microsystems. But many of our other institutions stand empty—too historic, or simply too expensive, to demolish.

  2. #2
    kts's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2006
    Laurel, MD


    Photojournalist. according to the area code on his cell and office phones listed on his page he's out of Montreal.

    I read this in the waiting room last night while waiting to get an MRI. I was surprised to find a copy of this in the magazine stack.
    All I do is party...

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