The State Hospital Project
The State Hospital System in the United States was the pinnacle of mental health treatment for the better half of the 19th and 20th centuries. These large, self-contained complexes were safe havens for the treatment of people with mental health conditions. Unfortunately, neglect of patients, abuse, illegal experimentation, and the parameters for what constituted an individual to be mentally ill would ultimately cause mass closure and defunding of these complexes over time. Through this project, I set out to document the remains of these hospitals up and down the east coast from my home in Maryland. There are hundreds more across the country that currently exist in a state of abandonment as many local regions would rather let their past die with the hospital rather than to revitalize the space in a way that current and future generations alike can learn from our history in mental health treatment.
A number of the State Hospitals built can be attributed to Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride who would serve as the president for the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (AMSAII). His “Kirkbride Plan” would lay out the construction for many grand complexes such as Hudson, Buffalo, Spring Grove, and Harrisburg State Hospital all of which I had the fortunate opportunity to see and photograph. While these buildings have been or are in the process of being registered as historic and preserved, it leaves the hundreds of other complexes left with a future unanswered. Sitting are the remnants of a failed idealized utopia. One where mental health patients could have had the potential to have been cured in a state of the art facility if it had not been plagued by the overcrowding and other problems these places sadly faced.
Within these spaces are the memories of a place that is no longer. Long empty hallways, old medical equipment, therapy tubs, hair salons, and operation suites, are a few of the many commonalities these forgotten facilities shared. Traveling to these different places to be completely immersed in their dilapidated environments allowed for reconciliation. As the passing of time continues, nature will further reclaim what once was, or humanity will continue the destruction and demolition of historic properties for less significant gentrified residencies. Robert Kirkbride (descendant of Thomas Kirkbride) once stated, “Buildings didn’t commit people. People committed people. But it’s easier to blame buildings than human behavior.” These State Hospital Complexes deserve to be saved.