View of the Laundry Building from the Powerplant – Central State Hospital

On the near westside of Indianapolis, constrained by Washington and Vermont Streets and Tibbs and Warman Avenues sits an 100-acre plot of land that’s been home to 150+ years of sadness and neglect.

In 1848, the institution that was first dubbed the The Indiana Hospital for the Insane, began with five patients in a single building. Originally functioning as the single, centralized asylum for the entire state, its severe overcrowding was eased temporarily the opening of geographically strategic mental hospitals in Logansport, Richmond and Evansville between 1880 and 1890. With the opening of the three other asylums, Indianapolis’ hospital was left to treat patients from within the “central district”, an area of 38 counties surrounding Indy. By 1929, it had been renamed Central State Hospital and had grown to a population of 3,000 patients.

Both the massive Men’s and Women’s buildings, highly ornate, Victorian structures, had been built according to the Kirkbride plan for mental asylums. Dr. Thomas Kirkbride was a highly influential advocate of the “Moral Treatment” approach of mental healthcare, abandoning the classic “madhouse” approach in favor of a more humane (comparatively speaking) treatment of patients. He developed an institutional standard building to best administer proper treatment that was adopted by dozens of mental hospitals across the country.

“Dr. Kirkbride envisioned an asylum with a central administration building flanked by two wings comprised of tiered wards. This “linear plan” facilitated a hierarchical segregation of residents according to sex and symptoms of illness. Male patients were housed in one wing, female patients in the other. Each wing was sub-divided by ward with the more “excited” patients placed on the lower floors, farthest from the central administrative structure, and the better-behaved, more rational patients situated in the upper floors and closer to the administrative center. Ideally, this arrangement would make patients’ asylum experience more comfortable and productive by isolating them from other patients with illnesses antagonistic to their own while still allowing fresh air, natural light, and views of the asylum grounds from all sides of each ward.” (1)

As time passed, new generations of mental health professionals turned to fresh methods of treatment (psychoanalysis, drug-theropy, etc) and the Kirkbride asylum plan became obsolete. At Central State, the Men’s building was razed in 1941 and by the 1970s, many of the remaining Victorian era buildings had been demolished as well, replaced by nondescript institutional buildings on the eastern half of the grounds.

Map showing the remaining buildings at Central State and the former location of the Women’s Building

By the 1960s, mental health administrators had come to realize that the institutional setting was neither particularly effective nor beneficial for it’s inhabitants, leading to hospitals across the country discharging many long term patients. For some, it was a godsend. For others, it resulted in the severely mentally ill wandering the streets. Central State continued it’s decline, with a population that had dwindled to around 400 in the early 1990s, until allegations of mistreatment and several patient deaths forced then Governor Evan Bayh to close the hospital in 1994.

Today only a handful of buildings remain, including the restored Pathology Building, built in 1895, which now houses the Indiana Medical History Museum, which is accessible from the Vermont St. entrance to the grounds and is open Thursday-Saturday.

The Indiana Medical History Museum with teaching amphitheater past and present

In the past year, construction has been completed on a new apartment complex on the southeast corner of the Central State Property, dubbed “The Steeples on Washington”, which according to their website offers “residents the finest in modern amenities, including a community clubhouse, a children’s playground” and apartments, some of which, back directly up to a 20 years abandoned, firebombed, insane asylum building built in 1956.

Which, you know, for me at least…is pretty awesome.