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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

12 responses to “New Life at Central State Asylum”

  1. Juanita S. Payne says:

    My gg aunt, Elizabeth Brown, was a patient there in the 1910 census. I look forward to more information.

  2. Mackey Stanley says:

    You left out one group that has been there since its closure as an “asylum.” USA Diving had their national dive team’s dry land center in the basement of that horrid place for years. They later rented out the larger building where the police vehicles were repaired until the national dive center was dissolved. I cannot believe the number of kids that trained in that basement but Olympic Gold Medalist David Boudia was one of them. You should contact USA diving or Coach John Wingfield in Fishers for more information.

  3. Aaron McMillan says:

    My Great Grandmother had post partum depression around 1916 and spent the rest of her life at Central State until she died there in the late 60’s early 1970’s.

  4. Ryan Hamlett says:

    Strangely enough, I’m good friends with a former gymnast whose family either donated or sold (can’t remember) some of their several foot thick practice mats to USA Diving for use at Central State. Last year, while taking photos in the Bahr Building in the southeast corner of the property, I found several of those mats torn to pieces by vandals.

  5. Ryan Hamlett says:

    That’s terrible and I’m sorry to hear that. We as a country still struggle with how we treat mental illnesses, but it’s awful to think that someone could spend 50-some years of their live in an institution for depression.

  6. Carol Reid says:

    We lived on West Jackson St so Central State was behind us. I remember one morning that my parents found a patient from there sleeping on our front porch. I always was afraid of that place. I do dislike that the old buildings are now gone. They were quite remarkable!

  7. andy says:

    ive been there recently (nov 2016) all that is left is the power building, administration building and some what looks to be shower rooms. i have thouroughly explored the power building and have found bones and teeth in the basement. its a very cool experience. it makes you wonder what really happened there.

  8. Anonymous says:

    5

  9. Diego Espinosa says:

    Wow, Andy. That sounds crazy. I am currently living at Central State Mansion and I love the rich history of this campus. I would love to explore the powerhouse!

  10. Diego E says:

    Hey Ryan! This article was very interesting. I just moved into Central State Mansion and I love the rich history of the campus.

  11. Linda edwards says:

    My first job after high school (1963) was in the Recreation Department at Centeal State Hospital. The staff supervised activities such as team sports, bowling, tennis, music therapy. We even traveled to local field trips and competitions to other hospitals in the state on our trusty green bus. Some of my most memorable “work stories” have their origins at Central State.

  12. Linda edwards says:

    It has been over 50 years, since I worked at Central State. I never thought of visiting the grounds since my departure. Your reference to the remaining buildings has piqued my curiosity.

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