We tend to think of mental hospitals as homes for the classic American horror story – places of nightmarish squalor, abuse and straight jackets.
Few, however, realize these institutions were once monuments of civic pride, built with noble intentions by leading architects and physicians who envisioned the asylums as places of refuge, therapy and healing.
On Nov. 29, West Virginia University will host a unique look at state mental hospitals in lecture by photographer Christopher Payne. He will present “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals,” at 6 p.m. at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston.
This event is sponsored by the WVU Department of History and a grant from the WV Humanities Council. This program is part of a larger project that explores the history of mental healthcare in West Virginia. It is free and open to the public.
For more than half the nation’s history, vast mental hospitals were a prominent feature of the American landscape. From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, more than 250 institutions for the insane were built throughout the U.S. By 1948, they housed more than half a million patients. But, over the next 30 years, with the introduction of psychotropic drugs and policy shifts toward community-based care, patient populations declined dramatically, leaving many of these buildings neglected and abandoned.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, or the Weston State Hospital, was a psychiatric hospital that operated from 1864 until 1994. It was one of several state mental hospitals designed by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride who believed the architectural space could positively impact patient treatment. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is one of the few Kirkbride buildings remaining and open for tours. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990.
From 2002 to 2008, Payne visited 70 institutions in 30 states, photographing lavish exteriors designed by famous architects and crumbling interiors that appeared as if the occupants had just left. He documented how the hospitals functioned as self-contained cities, where almost everything of necessity was produced or stored on site: food, water, power and even clothing and shoes. Since many of these places have been demolished, Payne’s photographs serves as official record.
Payne is a photographer specializing in the documentation of America’s vanishing architecture and industrial landscape. His book, “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals,” is the result of his exploration of state mental institutions. Trained as an architect, Payne is a graduate of Columbia University and earned his masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
For more information, contact Melissa Bingmann, at 304-293-9304 or Melissa.Bingmann@mail.wvu.edu
CONTACT: Rebecca Herod, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.