Athens State Hospital

Athens State Hospital

Athens State Hospital, about 1900

The Athens Lunatic Asylum, later called the Athens State Hospital, opened in 1874.

This was located on high ground to the south of town and to the south of the Hocking River, and in the late 1800s was the town's largest employer. The state hospital was eventually decommissioned and the property was deeded to Ohio University. It is now known as The Ridges.

Much of the building space has been renovated for offices and research space, and most of the grounds has been set aside as open space, including a land lab.

The Athens Lunatic Asylum began operation in 1874 in Athens, Ohio. Within two years of its opening, the hospitalwas renamed as the Athens Hospital for the Insane. Later the hospital would be called the Athens Asylum for the Insane, the Athens State Hospital, the Southeastern Ohio Mental Health Center, the Athens Mental Health Center, the Athens Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center, the Athens Mental Health and Developmental Center, and then (again) the Athens Mental Health Center. After the hospital's original structure closed, Ohio University acquired the property and renamed the area as The Ridges. However, the institution of the state hospital continued to function in Athens, with patients and staff relocating to a newly constructed facility, which, at the time of the transition in 1993, was called the Southeast Psychiatric Hospital.

Lindley Hall, 1892

The original hospital was in operation from 1874 to 1993. Although not a self-sustaining facility, the hospital for many years had livestock, farm fields and gardens, an orchard, greenhouses, a dairy, a physical plant to generate steam heat, and even a carriage shop in the early years. The architect for the original building was Levi T. Scofield of Cleveland. Construction of the facility began in 1868 and the hospital opened on January 9, 1874.

The designs of the buildings and grounds were influenced by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a 19th century physician who authored an influential treatise on hospital design, On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane. Kirkbride buildings are most recognizably characterized by their "bat wing" floor plan and often lavish Victorian-era architecture.

The hospital grounds were designed by Herman Haerlin of Cincinnati, a student of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect of Central Park in New York. Some of Haerlin's other landscape designs are seen in Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery and the Oval on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus.

Haerlin also based his designs on Kirkbride's plans that stated extensive grounds with parks, lakes, and farmland were beneficial to the success of an asylum.

For many years, the hospital was Athens, Ohio's largest employer. The state hospital was eventually decommissioned and in a land swap between the Department of Mental Health and Ohio University, the hospital's property was deeded to Ohio University. Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare, Athens Campus (as Southeast Psychiatric Hospital was renamed), still serves as a psychiatric hospital in Athens. With the original Athens Lunatic Asylum situated on a hill south of the Hocking River and the newer hospital on the northern bank of the river, the two facilities are still within sight of each other.

Ridges Daystaff, 1873

Ridges Nightstaff, 1873

The history of the hospital documents some of the now discredited theories of the causes of mental illness, as well as the practice of harmful treatments, such as lobotomy. The leading cause of insanity among the male patients was fever, according to the annual report of 1876. In the first three years of the hospital, eighty-one men and one woman were diagnosed as having their insanity caused by fever.

When the hospital first opened, many patients there were Civil War Veterans suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.

Children who would have today been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD would also have been committed by their parents because they were too much for them to handle.

Mothers with large families were known to commit themselves for a couple weeks just so they could take a break.

By the early 1990s, many of the original buildings had fallen into disrepair and were no longer used by the hospital. The site of the old hospital is now owned by Ohio University and is the developed portion of a much larger parcel of land called The Ridges, which today hosts a nature preserve, the Kennedy Museum of Art, School of Art graduate studios, a biotechnology research center, and an auditorium, among other university endeavors.

Athens State Hospital Garden, 1890s

Athens State Hospital Residents, 1890s

The presence of a stable funding authority, Ohio University, has ensured restoration of much of the original grounds as envisioned by Haerlin and others. The nature preserve provides habitat for bobcats, deer, fox, hawks, wild turkeys, and an abundance of other wildlife.

The Dairy Barn Southeastern Ohio Cultural Arts Center, a nonprofit arts organization, is located in the remodeled dairy barn of the old hospital. It is owned and operated by the Ohio Arts Council.

Members of the Athens, Ohio chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness have worked to restore the three graveyards located on the Ridges grounds. Several organizations and individuals have restored a pond on the Ridges and made nature walks on the grounds.

  • During the 1950s, Walter Jackson Freeman, M.D., Ph.D., "The Father of the Transorbital Lobotomy," performed over 200 lobotomies on patients. Although now discredited as a treatment for mental illness, the surgery on the brain was an accepted medical procedure at the time.
  • Multiple personality and convicted rapist, Billy Milligan (made famous in Daniel Keyes' book, "The Minds of Billy Milligan") was a patient at the hospital in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • The stain left by the decaying body of a 54-year-old female patient has fueled the speculation of those who believe in haunted places. She was found dead in an unused ward early in 1979, after she had been missing for six weeks.
  • The Ridges was shown on Fox Family Channel's television show "Scariest Places on Earth".
  • The British Society for Psychical Research named Athens, Ohio the 13th most haunted place on earth.

Athens, Ohio
November 16, 1871
The slate roofing has been completed on the Eastern wing of the Main building of the New Lunatic Asylum, and preparations are being made for roofing the Western wing. Two weeks more of good weather will doubtless witness the whole of the main building under its slate covering. We learn that the inside work on the building will continue during the winter.

["THE ATHENS MESSENGER", November 16, 1871]

Source:  Wikipedia;  photos Courtesy of the Mahn Center, Alden Library, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio

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