Category Archives: history

An afternoon at the asylum

Inevitably, when people go home for the holidays, they make jokes about how insane their families are, or how they’ll go mad if they have to spend too much time hanging out in their hometown. This year, my family took all the crazy talk seriously and literally went to the asylum–the Athens Lunatic Asylum, or, as it’s now known, The Ridges.

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The main building, which now houses Ohio University’s Kennedy Museum of Art

 

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Another view of the main building, which was built according to the recommendations of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, who felt that mental health facilities should give patients an opportunity to live calm, fulfilling lives.

The Ridges is one of my favorite places in town. It’s got beautiful old buildings, peaceful grounds, and lots of interesting history–which I recently read about in The Asylum on the Hill. Prior to that, I’d also had the privilege of getting a guided tour of the main building (now home to the Kennedy Museum) shortly after the facility was taken over by Ohio University. Of course, I’ve also heard many stories over the years from people who were probably more interested in drama than in accuracy–especially in relation to the story of “The Stain”, which was caused by decomposition of the body of an escaped patient who hid away, and died in, the asylum’s attic.

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To counteract bad and inaccurate press, and also to give visitors a chance to hear about the asylum from an experienced insider, the Athens Historical Society now runs tours led by George Eberts–a mental health expert who was based at the facility for nearly 20 years before being relocated to the new Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare building across the river.

Outside the old asylum
Our tour guide, George Eberts, can be seen in the black jacket and khaki trousers in the front right of the photo.

Ebert told us about the construction of the facilities, which were built from blueprints crafted by the architect Levi Scofield shortly after he left the army. The asylum was the first building designed by Scofield, who went on to create numerous other structures around Ohio.

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In addition to hearing about the architecture at the Ridges, we also found out about mental health treatment over the years. When the Athens Lunatic Asylum first opened, patients who were able led very “normal” lives there–they tilled fields, harvested crops, took care of livestock, went on walks, held picnics, and generally enjoyed as peaceful an existence as the caretakers could create for them.

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Black vultures seemed to be very attracted to the Kennedy Museum’s roof…
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…especially on the sunny side of the building.
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The vultures also enjoyed the roof of the energy station.

Eberts said that the system worked well for a couple of decades, but then began to experience difficulties as patient numbers exceeded the capacity of the building. Later on, there were also some issues associated with more unsavory treatment practices, such as electro-shock therapy and lobotomies. Interestingly, Eberts reported that both of these techniques were sometimes successful (and, in fact, the former is still used today), but are now viewed negatively at least partly because they were employed somewhat indiscriminately–and not always with sufficient permission from the patients.

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I like windows.
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A lot. 
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(Though they aren’t quite as attractive when boarded up.)

We also got to hear about some of the things that George experienced first-hand, including finding secret spots where patients relaxed and partied out of the view of their caretakers. He also told us about a time when some orderlies accidentally locked themselves in a room with one patient, leaving the rest of the residents on their floor to run wild; he also had a story about a caretaker who outwitted the authorities who came to bust him for taking a woman back to his room.

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The old grand ballroom is at the bottom left of the photo. We could see the relatively new brickwork joining the upper and lower windows of the two-story hall; when the ballroom was first in use, the windows used to stretch the entirety of the two storeys.
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The only thing better than windows is windows and vultures.
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…or you could just have windows. 

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Or doors. I just like portals, generally.

While working at the asylum, Eberts often came face-to-face with its history. He got the opportunity to explore many of its nooks and crannies, including the creepy basement. (However, asbestos prevented him from checking out the women’s wing, which he described as the atmospheric part of the building that everyone would visit if only they could.) He told us how he was once called out to help move a heavy stone staircase (shown below). Historical photos later revealed that it had been used by visitors who needed help gracefully descending from their carriages. On another occasion, he was sent into town to retrieve the decorative fountain that used to sit out front and had been sent off for repairs. The metal angel couldn’t be salvaged, but the stone base was returned and is now located in the asylum’s back “yard”–where it is overrun by weeds and is no longer home to the two alligators that used to lounge in its waters during the warmer months.

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Graffiti left by former asylum residents. It’s hard to read here, but it says something about how cheap locks can’t keep him in. This is some of the only “window graffiti” that can still be seen by visitors; most of the other examples are in areas that are now off limits.
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The old weighing house, in front of which trucks used to drive, first empty and then full, so that harvested crops could be weighed.

Although we spent the majority of the time focused on the main building, we also wandered around other portions of the grounds. We passed several of the “cottages” where later patients could live together in small groups, and we took in the one remaining greenhouse and root cellar. We also headed up the hill to visit one of the asylum’s three cemeteries; we saw the two graves where former Civil War soldiers–one white man from the Confederate side, and one black man from the Union side–are buried in close proximity.

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In the near future, OU is going to build an observatory on the hill behind these trees. George and his colleague Tom O’Grady–who teach astronomy together at the university–are lobbying for it to include a planetarium as well as a telescope.

At the end of the tour, George gave us permission (though I’m not exactly sure he was empowered to do so!) to head up the fire escape and peek through the windows into the abandoned women’s wing. You couldn’t see much except for some photogenically peely paint on the walls of empty rooms.

 

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The creepiest thing wasn’t the haunted house atmosphere so much as the vertigo caused by looking between the slats of the three-storey fire escape.
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A look inside the abandoned wing of the building.

Perhaps the best part of George’s presentation was the calm and humanizing way that he spoke about mental health issues, which left me with a greater sense of empathy and gave me a real appreciation for the work that he and his colleagues have done over the years at both the old and new incarnations of the asylum.

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Evening falls over The Ridges

I’m sure most people would raise an eyebrow if invited to visit an old mental asylum for the holidays, but, in our case at least, it was well worth the trip. We got to spend time outdoors on a beautiful sunny afternoon and hear about some fascinating local history. Hats off to George and the Athens Historical Society for hosting such an educational and generally pleasant event–their last one of the year, and a novel way to celebrate the winter solstice and my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, which happened to fall on the same day. [Feel free to mentally insert your own joke about marriage and mental institutions.]  Thanks to the addition of an atmospheric flock of vultures and a prowling Cooper’s hawk, there was really nothing else I could ask for. Now we just have to figure out what kind of outing we can do next year in order to top this one!

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Updates: My dad did a newspaper story about George’s tours earlier this year. You can read it here. He also took some photos during our tour:

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My mom checks out the facade of the Kennedy Museum
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Sasha and I listen to George’s fascinating history of the asylum.