One of the former three truly old, historical state hospitals in North Carolina, Dorothea Dix Hospital in the state’s capital, Raleigh, is now cleared for completion of its sale to the city of Raleigh. The huge, many hundred acre site, established in the late 1800’s, and named after one of the early American crusaders for improvement in custodial (institutional) mental health care, Dorothea Dix, will proceed with its long debated and fought over sale. The sale will total somewhere around $52 million according to a very recent news story by WRAL ABC Channel 11, of Raleigh.
Why is this of note in the world of mental health reform in this country?
1. There are literally many dozens of old languishing state hospital properties and campuses in this country; many are almost unbelievably operating after perhaps an average lifespan of nearly 150 years, while many others are abandoned ghostly properties. If you are curiious about these architectural gems, or, monstrous relics of bygone eras of ghastly cruel inhumane care, depending upon your beliefs and attitudes toward the always controversial history of mental health care, please search on my favorite bookseller and go to reading search site, Amazon.com and look for books on asylums and state hospitals in America. Fascinating reading for those interested in this sector of esoteric social history if ever there was one.
So many of these properties need to be sold, preserved or whatever, now and in the future as the still active facilities gradually are “phased out,” and replaced by more modern facilities or closed altogether, depending on the need for inpatient public psychiatric beds in each state.
2. They represent a real source of monies, for state and regional/municipal coffers that could be put to good use.
I have been aware that very few of these properties around the country have been sold and converted to helpful assets or capital. There are a number, though honestly speaking, not many, websites that catalog the numbers of abandoned former state mental hospitals slowly proceeding to ruin through abandonment and fiscal and physical neglect. One website through the genealogy organization of RootsWeb, lists perhaps most of the former and current American state psychiatric hospitals state by state. And it unbelievably it offers information on the phenomenon of the “Asylum Tourist.” Sheesh. I appreciate historic sites and beautiful woodwork, antique furniture as much as a geek can. My late father was a master woodworker and proud owner of a “ShopSmith” all his adult life. [If you do not know what that is, well, Google it, or, don’t bother, it really is information will not make you stand out anywhere except at a woodworker’s convention, or in perhaps a Trivia Pursuit championship. But then again, I doubt even the latter.
State hospitals always have and had fantastic craftsmanship, furniture, architecture, woodwork etc. Much has been salvaged from closed state hospitals. If you are a “preservationist” like Europe seems to have been in their cultures for hundreds of years, this stuff matters. That’s why we go to Rome, to Paris, to Prague, to see the incomparable buildings, art, statues, gardens and on and on. But if you are a modern, [wasteful?] devotee of the disposable, rapidly obsolescent approach to “things,” then all this is likely drivel and unimportant. I certainly am in the former camp, the older I get.
Another historical website devoted to this kind of history, details the history of the “Kirkbride” architecture of state hospitals that totally dominated such institutions for nearly 3/4 of a century. Students of architecture and architectural history still study these, visit them and even go on “tours” of these sites around the country. [I know that sounds perhaps very weird to most, but bear with me].
So I have pondered in recent years, what could old state hospitals be converted to? This is my partial list of charitable causes I could see some of these grand and incredibly sturdy structures devoted to:
- community college facilities
- public school educational facilities
- subsidized housing especially for the elderly, as there are bathrooms galore, and these places were hospitals for goodness sake
- public governmental offices [don’t laugh, check out the connection between the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC and the Department of Homeland Security…
- public museums
Now marketing a state hospital even in the best of condition is not an easy task. They are often located in not the most economically active metropolitan centers; they are mostly located out in the boondocks, the isolated countryside, as part of their raison de etre, was to get the disturbed and disturbing mental patient, the insane, out of the public eye. Who wants a facility with many buildings, and hundreds of rooms out of the middle of nowhere? Raleigh, North Carolina’s Dorothea Dix Hospital is one of the fairly rare exceptions, being located in a major modern city.
They are all truly ageing physical plants. Most of the inactive hospitals, if not almost all, have deteriorated markedly through neglect for a few years to decades. They would take huge amounts of money to rehabilitate and bring up to modern building codes.
Though all of them were really sturdily built, they were never the most energy efficient structures even with their three feet thick walls and no wood in their make-up to attract the pest control companies’ best friend, the termite. It is not unusual for an operating state hospital to have utility bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, even in the scaled down facilities. Thier heating plants are aged, and almost always belong to the steam non-electrical eras of heating.
I now am witness to a state’s dilemma of what to do, at a hoped for helpful profit, with a soon to be closed ageing state hospital. How does one market such a huge property that is not a brand spanking new outlet mall on a busy inter-metropolitan interstate highway, that will mint money the week it opens?
At least in Raleigh, Dorothea Dix herself, I think would be pleased with the coming sale of her namesake institution. It will become property of Raleigh, the state will gain a sizeable amount of monies that can be put to good use, and the city of Raleigh will receive a new very large regional mixed use business park out of the deal. That appears to be far better than the site becoming a huge, slowly deteriorating eyesore and environmental blight. A good deal all around.