Editor’s Note: These sprawling grounds on Indianapolis’ near west side will be the subject of a three-part series focusing on Reverie Estates‘ restoration of the surviving Administration and Recreation buildings. First, we will focus on the background history of Central State Hospital.

Indianapolis' first hospital for the insane as depicted by Hooiser pioneer artist Christian Schader.

Indianapolis’ first hospital for the insane as depicted by Hooiser pioneer artist Christian Schader.

Not long after Indiana moved its capital from Corydon to Indianapolis in 1825, the fledgling city found it needed a place to house and care for its citizens deemed unfit for the general population. A few log cabins in an area of town identified as “section 22” (bordered by Alabama, New Jersey, New York and Vermont Streets) and named “hospital square” served as Indianapolis’ first insane asylum.


A portrait of Sarah Bolton, Indiana’s “pioneer poet” whose 160 acre farm became Central State Hospital, hangs in the reception room of the Pathology Building/Indiana Medical Museum. – Photo by Ryan Hamlett

In 1845, Governor James Whitcomb appointed Dr. John Evans, Dr. Livingston Dunlap and James Blake to a commission to establish a permanent home for the insane. That fall, they purchased the 160-acre farmstead of Nathaniel Bolton and his poet wife Sarah for $5,300. Three years later, the Indiana Hospital for the Insane admitted its first five patients.


The enormous Women’s Building was known as the Seven Steeples, though it actually sported eight. The steeples were later removed for structural reasons prior to the entire building’s demolition in the 1970s.

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


The changing grounds of Central State Hospital from 1908 on the left to 1941 on the right, soon after the razing of the Men’s Building. – from the IUPUI Basit Atlas Collection

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)


The Pathology Building, built in 1895, sought to help doctors learn the root causes of insanity,  to better help the staff of Central State treat its patients, rather than simply house them. 

In 1895, hospital superintendent George Edenharter, a former mayoral candidate and well connected man about town, secured considerable funds to build the Pathology Building, one of two of its kind in the country, to study and research the causes of insanity, offering that were they able to diagnose, cure and send their patients home, they would save the state tax dollars in the long run. Outfitted with a teaching amphitheater, autopsy room, medical library, museum and laboratories, the Pathology Building was in full operation until 1969, when it became the Indiana Medical History Museum.


An aerial view of Central State in 1921 with arrows identifying the few surviving buildings from its original sprawl.ing campus – Photo from the collection of the Indiana Medical Museum 

At its largest, Central State housed nearly 3,000 patients and had grown to include the enormous Men’s and Women’s Building’s, a power-plant, dining halls, greenhouse, recreation hall, chapel, fire department and several more support structures. However, 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, the Seven Steeples and many of the other remaining Victorian era buildings had been demolished as well, replaced by nondescript institutional buildings on the eastern half of the grounds.


The dust and detritus of the crumbling Evans Building, added to Central State in 1974, in the north east corner of the property. – Photo by Ryan Hamlett

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 Governor Evan Bayh to close the hospital in 1994._MG_5877

Since the hospital’s closing, only the Pathology Building, housing the Indiana Medical History Museum, remained occupied. Though the Indiana State Police took over the westernmost portion of the hospital’s grounds to use as stables for the mounted division’s horses, the only other visitors to the property were a the occasional trespassing photographer or explorer or the unfortunately more frequent vandal, trashing the dormant buildings as they sat empty for 20 years.

Recently, there has been new life on the formerly quiet grounds on West Washington Street. An apartment complex on the southeast of the property, aptly named “Steeples on Washington”, opened this past year. And this year, Reverie Estates–the company that restored and revived the Piccadilly and Penn Arts buildings on 16th Street–brings its talent for thoughtful restoration to the historic Administration and Recreation buildings at Central State.

Stay tuned for Part 2–a more in-depth look at Reverie’s renovations of those two buildings.