Today, this complex, called the Ridges, is part of Ohio University, but these historic buildings once housed the Athens Lunatic Asylum. Not only are these buildings steeped in history, some are said to still “host” visitors from the past.
The historic hospital got its start in 1867 when the Ohio Legislature appointed a commission to find a site for an asylum in southeastern Ohio. A suitable site was found in Athens and Levi T. Scofield was chosen as the architect. The designs of the buildings and grounds were influenced by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a 19th-century physician who authored a book on mental hospital design. His designs were often recognizable for their “bat wing” floor plans and lavish Victorian architecture.
The original design included an administration building with two wings, one that would house the males and the other for the females. The building itself was 853 feet long, 60 feet wide and built with red bricks which were fired from clay dug on-site. Built onto the back were a laundry room and boiler house. Seven cottages were also constructed to house even more patients. There was room to house 572 patients in the main building, almost double of what Kirkbride had recommended which would eventually lead to overcrowding and conflicts between the patients.
The administrative section, located between the two resident wings, included an entrance hall, offices, and a reception room on the first floor, the superintendent’s residence on the second floor, and quarters for other officers and physicians on the 3rd and 4th floors. A large high ceiling amusement hall filled the 2nd and 3rd floors, and a chapel was included on the 4th floor. Behind and beneath the public and private spaces of the building were the heating and mechanical systems, kitchens, cellars, storerooms, and workspaces.
The site, which was first comprised of 141 acres, would eventually grow to 1,019 acres which included cultivated, wooded, and pasture land. The grounds were designed by Herman Haerlin of Cincinnati and would incorporate landscaped hills and trees, decorative lakes, a spring, and a creek with a waterfall. Not only would the patients enjoy the beautiful landscape but citizens also enjoyed the extensive grounds. Though the facility would never be fully self-sustaining, over the years the grounds would include livestock, farm fields and gardens, an orchard, greenhouses, a dairy, a receiving hospital, a Tubercular Ward, a physical plant to generate steam heat, and even a carriage shop in the earlier years.
The hospital, first called the Athens Lunatic Asylum, officially began operations on on January 9, 1874. Within two years, it was renamed the Athens Hospital for the Insane. Over the years, its name would be changed many times to the Athens State Hospital, the Southeastern Ohio Mental Health Center, the Athens Mental Health Center, the Athens Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center, and the Athens Mental Health and Developmental Center
During its operation, the hospital provided services to a variety of patients including Civil War veterans, children, the elderly, the homeless, rebellious teenagers being taught a lesson by their parents, and violent criminals suffering from various mental and physical disabilities. These patients, with diagnoses ranging from the slightest distress to severely mentally ill, were provided various forms of care, many of which have been discredited today. The asylum was best known for its practice of lobotomy, but also known to have practiced hydrotherapy, electroshock, restraint, and psychotropic drugs, many of which have been found to be harmful today.
More interesting are the causes listed for admission, which included epilepsy, menopause, alcohol addiction and tuberculosis. General “ill health” also accounted for many admissions, which included in the first three years of operation 39 men and 44 women. For the female patients hospitalized during these first three years of the asylum’s operation, the three leading causes of insanity are recorded as “puerperal condition” (relating to childbirth), “change of life”, and “menstrual derangements”. According to an 1876 report, the leading cause of insanity among male patients was masturbation. The second-most common cause of insanity was listed as intemperance (alcohol). Depending upon their condition, a patient’s treatment could range from full care to amazing freedom.
Over the years, numerous buildings were added including a farm office, a new amusement hall, additional wards and residences, laundry building, power plant, garages, stables, mechanics shops, a firehouse, therapy rooms and dozens of others. By the 1950s the hospital was using 78 buildings and was treating 1,800 patients.
In the 1960s the total square footage of the facility was recorded at 660,888 square feet. It was also at this time that its population peaked at nearly 2,000 patients, over three times its capacity. However, the number of patients would begin to decline for the next several decades as de-institutionalization accelerated. As the numbers of people at the Asylum declined, the buildings and wards were abandoned one by one.
Comprised of three graveyards, burials began soon after the opening of the institution as there were deceased patients who were unclaimed by their families. Until 1943 the burials were headed only by stones with numbers, with the names of the dead known only in recorded ledgers. Only one register is known to exist today, which contains the names of 1,700 of the over 2,000 burials. In 1972 the last patients were buried in the asylum cemetery. Today the cemeteries continue to be maintained by the Ohio Department of Mental Health.