“Austin Askew”–Chapter XIII– 150 Years at the Austin State Hospital

It’s a safe bet that when most of you drive past the Austin State Hospital on Guadalupe you have one of two reactions–you shudder in fear at what horrors you think must go on there behind closed doors, or you chuckle to yourself and say, “Yep, that’s where I’m gonna wind up one day, when the men in the white jackets come drop a butterfly net over me.” But these are both misconceptions, fueled by Hollywood and with no connection to modern practices in the treatment of people with mental illnesses.

Now I know several people from up north who, when they came to Texas, expected that everyone would be wearing cowboy boots and hats and live on ranches full of horses, cattle, and oil wells. They didn’t know that modern Texas is less “Giant” and more “King of the Hill.”

Similarly, many people today still imagine state hospitals as being terrifying dungeons full of thuggish attendants, sadistic nurses, and straitjackets, where lobotomies are doled out like parking tickets, and once you go in you’re pretty much stuck there the rest of your life. Recently I took a tour of the Austin State Hospital (ASH) and it was enlightening, to say the least. The only straitjacket there was in a glass case, and Nurse Ratched was nowhere to be seen.

I arrived early for my tour, which gave me time to get some exterior shots of the main building, and size the property up. The grounds were tranquil. The main building was huge and solid, with graceful lines, but it was also dilapidated in many places, with broken windows patched up with weathered bits of plywood. A pair of rusty fire escapes hung from the walls–just barely. I eventually made my way to the front portico which, though providing a beautiful view of the grounds, was also showing its age. Sections of the flooring and the hand-carved columns had been patched, while other portions were clearly still in need of repair.

I was shown around by Wendy Biro-Pollard, Director of Community Relations at ASH. One of the first things that struck me about her was the pride of place she feels for this old building, as well as her pain that it is in such poor shape. Ms. Biro-Pollard and many of her co-workers are so excited to work in such an interesting old structure that they furnish their offices with antiques from the Hospital’s collections.

The first section of the Administration Building (henceforth referred to by its building number–501) was constructed between 1857 and 1861, making it the third oldest public building in Texas after the Governor’s Mansion (completed in 1856) and the Old Land Office (completed in 1858). It was designed by Christoph Conrad Stremme, architect of the Land Office, and its construction was supervised by Abner Cook, architect of the Mansion.

Built of native grey limestone, the structure consists of three stories and a full, above-ground basement. A neo-classical portico was added at the turn of the last century, and the roof is graced with two cupolas. The cupolas were designed to be vast flues to suck up hot air from the interior, but one also held a bell until 1974, when it was removed to the nearby All-Faiths Chapel. Unfortunately, the bell fell in 1976 and broke.

If you remember diagramming sentences in school, then you have a good idea of the floor plan of 501. Wings were added between 1861 to 1865, as well as in 1875, 1879, and 1893. Sleeping porches and bridges and corridors to other buildings were added in the 19th century and demolished in the 1970s.

The structure was designed to provide maximum cross-ventilation. The walls  are thick, and the floors have layers of sand within them as insulation and soundproofing. (This technique was also used in the famous Dakota Apartments in New York, where John Lennon lived, as well as at the Austin studio of sculptress Elisabet Ney.)

We tend to think of Victorian buildings as dark and gloomy, but 501 has such large windows that it is bathed in cheerful light. (In fact the only area where I used my camera’s flash was the attic.) At the time of its construction, this building was on the cutting edge in design for hospitals for those with mental illnesses, utilizing something grandly called “moral architecture.”

In the 1850s, Thomas Story Kirkbride was the Director of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, and he advocated what he called a “linear plan,” with a central block that would acquire more and more connecting wings as public funds became available. He wrote, “it is obvious that every State hospital should be made good enough for the highest class of its citizens, for it should not be forgotten that what is good enough for them….is none too good for the humblest of the unfortunates.”

Kirkbride advocated the use of interior toilets, steam heating, abundant amounts of water for drinking and cleaning, fireproof building materials, one or more large windows in each patient’s room, easy-to-clean walls and floors, and ample ventilation, including transoms, wide hallways, high ceilings, and fans to force stale air through exhaust flues.

(501 had steam heating until this year, and steam pipes used to run to all the old buildings through a network of underground tunnels. The offices in 501 are fitted out with very unusual-looking radiators. Whereas most  radiators look like coils of rope and sit on the floor, the radiators in 501 hang from the walls halfway toward the ceilings, and look somewhat like fancy heated towel racks.)

Ms. Biro-Pollard said, “This building was passive solar, so you could see the transoms, porches….And the whole concept was the notion that an asylum should be a beautiful place where people can heal.”

Ms. Biro-Pollard commented, “[501] needs probably $8 to $10 million dollars in restoration. The building was saved from the wrecking ball in the late 90s when they got a grant from the State to restore the windows and the roof. There’s a lot about this building that’s in trouble, and really, it’s a heritage issue.

“[We’d love to] find the funds to repair and restore this building to its original beauty. We’re gonna be celebrating our 150th anniversary in ‘07 and we’re trying to decide what we’re gonna do to acknowledge the fact that this campus, this facility has been here this long.

“I would love, especially as we get closer to that anniversary, to have a docent program where we could talk about this, let people see it, and take them up on the third floor.”

Renovation of the building is so expensive because there is lead-based paint everywhere, often chipping off the walls and ceilings, and there is plenty of asbestos that needs to be removed as well. Private and corporate funds will likely be needed to properly restore the building, since state and Federal funds don’t seem to be forthcoming.

Pointing to the west of 501, Ms. Biro-Pollard showed me the area once occupied by two huge French Renaissance Revival dormitories, one for men, one for women, that connected to 501, but were demolished in  1974. In my research I noticed that most of the buildings on the campus were state-of-the-art at the time they were constructed, but soon became over-crowded and worn down from over-use and lack of repairs. Often the only way to get a new building constructed was for the old one to burn down.

In the 1914 “Prosperity Edition” of the “Austin Statesman,” Superintendent Dr. John Preston complained, “It is a melancholy fact that for many years–as manifested by the frequent changes of superintendents–the Asylum was a part of the political spoils of the party in power. No superintendent was able, no matter how efficiently he performed his duties, to hold his place longer than the Administration of the Governor who appointed him.”

Joe C. Pearce, one-time Director of Rehabilitation at ASH wrote that when the Hospital was formed, the State sought a superintendent who was a medical doctor who was also married and willing to live on-site. To attract someone who would meet all of those special qualifications, the superintendent was to be paid more than the Governor. This news did not sit well with the Governor, as he thought it an insult to the dignity of his Exalted Office, and he threatened to veto appropriations to the superintendent and the Hospital unless he got a raise.

One thing I noticed while exploring 501 was how photographable, how cinematic it was. I told Ms. Biro-Pollard that if I was a movie location scout I’d definitely put the place on my short list.

In fact, 501 has been used in several films: in a few scenes of the Denzel Washington Gulf War picture “Courage Under Fire,” in the award-winning documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” and in the Robert Duvall/Michael Caine comedy “Secondhand Lions.” If you recall in the latter the scenes where Duvall was hospitalized, they were filmed on 501’s abandoned third floor.

Offices occupy most of the basement and first two floors of 501. The entire third floor and the 1893 laboratory wing and 1879 morgue wing are too unsafe to be used. The first and second floor hallways serve as ASH’s museum, and are lined with photos and glass cases full of artifacts, including laboratory equipment, autopsy instruments, a straitjacket, and electro-shock equipment. There is even a loom on display. (Weaving was considered a useful and calming form of therapy.)

Throughout the building are the sort of details that drive fans of historic architecture into ecstatics: pressed tin ceilings, art glass, beautiful woodwork, graceful stairways, and broad, sunny corridors and lofty rooms. In the 1880s the stone walls started cracking and iron rods were run through the entire building to strengthen and cinch them up. The star-shaped  pieces of iron that fastened onto the ends of these rods to secure them in place can be seen inside and outside of 501.

One of the last places I was taken in 501 was the attic, which I admit, gave me the creeps. While up there I stayed in the safety of the concrete stairwell, rather than daring to venture out onto the floor proper. You see, not only do I carry great weight in journalism circles, I also carry it atop my two legs, and I was afraid of stepping on a weak board and falling through to the second or third floor. Also, I’m still in many ways the eight-year-old who sees things under his bed when he turns off the light.

The attic stairwell, however, was fascinating, covered as it was with graffiti dating back a century, including “M.H. 1907,” “Henry Krause state carpenter May 14–1917 quit 1918 I came to work here July 1–190_,” and the elaborately painted “James L. Newton Nov. 15. 1916. Steaple (sic) Jack Painter Amear (sic) Thousand Mile, Jack. Lost In Texas Some Where.”

All of these fascinating things were located in Central Austin, minutes from UT and the Capitol, yet I realized I was one of the few people alive who’s had the chance to see them. It seemed such a shame.

Everywhere I looked in 501 there were photos of the glory days of ASH, back when it bore the unfortunate name of “Texas State Lunatic Asylum.” Back then the grounds contained an extensive Japanese garden and ponds. Strangely enough, even though in those days mental illness was regarded with contempt and shame, and family members suffering from mental illness were hidden away as scandalous blots on the family escutcheon, the grounds of ASH were a popular destination for picnics, boating excursions, 4th of July celebrations, and other outings. There was even a gazebo where brass bands gave concerts and performed for dances. Later on, movies were shown on the Hospital grounds. I guess Austinites tolerated the patients just as long as they weren’t relatives and didn’t get in the way.

When the Hospital first opened, the area now comprising Hyde Park (to the east of ASH) was occupied by a Native American tribe (no doubt consisting of wealthy ex-hippies), but it resented the influx of people and soon moved to the Mount Bonnell area. The area later became a popular site for fairs and horse races, and was eventually developed into the suburb of Hyde Park in the 1890s. The staff and patients of ASH were naturally quite connected to the community of Hyde Park.

Back then, the Hospital grounds consisted of hundreds of acres, and extended as far west as what is now Mopac and Camp Mabry and as far east as at least the ASH Cemetery on North Loop. According to Pearce, “A small community in itself, the Austin State Hospital had its own garden and crops, hog, dairy, and chicken farms, creamery, sewing room, laundry, mattress factory, and shoe shop. A deep water well and electrical generating system gave the hospital almost everything necessary to make it self-sustained.”

Such self-sufficiency was vital thanks to the Legislature’s characteristic lack of generosity. In those days ASH was under the aegis of something called the “Eleemosynary Division” of the State Board of Control. (And yes, I had to look that word up too. It means “relating to or dependent upon charity.”)

ASH was a feudal society, with a strict caste system, and it was all ruled over by the Superintendent. Staffers were to socialize only with other staffers from their own department or pay grade. If a male staffer took a fancy to a female staffer, he had to ask the Superintendent’s permission before he could date her, then ask him again for permission to marry, which was usually granted or denied based on housing availability. And if the young couple had any children, they were born in the ASH infirmary and raised off-site by relatives.

And though among the patient population the sexes (and races, for that matter) were strictly segregated, the administration was never wholly able to keep some patients from getting romantically involved. One superintendent even went so far as to have all the bushes and shrubs around the buildings cut down, so as to reduce the number of hiding places, but the patients just rescheduled their rendezvous for various culverts on the grounds.

The caste system also extended to the patients. Docile, well-behaved patients tended to regard themselves as superior and more favored than their more rambunctious fellows, and patients with cleaner habits were preferred over the less hygienic ones. And though white patients couldn’t vote and were practically considered “non-persons” by society then, they were still considered superior to black patients. In fact, black patients had their own wards, dining facilities, doctors, and attendants. (Racial integration was initiated in 1958, but wasn’t fully implemented until 1965.)

Manual labor was considered a much more effective treatment for the patients than allowing them to stare at the wall or wander the grounds. In his annual report for fiscal year 1894, Superintendent Dr. F. S. White held forth on this principle, but in the condescending manner that was then common when referring to people with mental illnesses: “If there is any class in the world that needs stimulating, moving, jostling, and stirring up, it certainly is the chronic insane. It may be asked, how can this condition be remedied? One word, employment, solves the problem….[G]ive employment to every patient that desired or was able to work; the recovery rate would be increased, more could be cared for during the year, and their lives rendered not altogether a blank.

… “Everything should be done for these people that can add anything to their comfort, and that will send a ray of sunshine through their darkened and miserable lives.”

At one point ASH housed 3,000 patients, and by 1955 the various state hospitals in Texas had a population of 16,500 crammed into spaces designed to accommodate only 9,800. Early on in his time as Governor, Allan Shivers declared Texas’s state hospitals to be in a state of emergency. Things were so bad with the budget that had the entire State government shut down for a year, it would still have been $11 million in debt, with nothing left over for the hospitals.

He added, “If we closed every state university and college for a full year, the money saved would do little more than make up the deficit. We would still not have the money to care for the needs of the state hospitals….The laws of both God and man require us to meet this problem courageously and solve it adequately and quickly.”

But somehow, some way, the Legislature managed to find the money to run the hospitals and even to make some much-needed major improvements. The 1950s also saw the advent of certain psychotropic drugs that made life much easier for many people suffering from mental illness.

In the 1950s a five-story medical building was erected on the ASH grounds. (I got to see this building on my tour and it’s a fairly  pristine example of ‘50s Mid-Century Modernism, with gleaming linoleum floors, tile walls, and doors with original lettering.) This structure was funded by cigarette taxes, and served the Austin State School, the Travis State School, and ASH, since at that time the patients did not go to public hospitals.

The ASH morgue, which was operated from 1955 to 1998, was moved from 501 to the medical building, and after Charles Whitman went on his killing spree at UT in 1966, his body was brought to the ASH morgue for an autopsy. His brain, which was found to contain a tumor, remained at ASH for many years, before being donated to UT.

I told Ms. Biro-Pollard of an old urban legend that has been knocking around Texas radio and TV news circles for years. The story goes that John F. Kennedy was not killed in Dallas, only gravely wounded. After extensive plastic surgery, he was hidden away in a private wing on the grounds, where the staffers were told only that he was a member of a wealthy, prominent family. Naturally, when he insisted that he was the President of the United States, the staffers ignored him.

Ms. Biro-Pollard thought this hilarious, and said she’d not heard that one before. Of course, if I should suddenly stop writing columns and it’s later found out that I was dragged from my bed in the middle of the night by the CIA and buried in a shallow grave outside Hutto, you all will know the reason why. But all kidding aside, that story is typical of the myths and lies that have developed about ASH over a century-and-a-half.

There is, needless to say, a great deal of archival material relating to ASH, and I imagine it would be of great benefit to ASH if it could get students from the UT archival and preservation departments to come help get those materials preserved and arranged.

We find ourselves today in a strange place regarding people with mental illnesses. On the one hand, there seems to be a greater understanding of mental illness. Many people now either take medication to stay on an “even keel” or know people who do. A person with mental illness is no longer the “madman in the attic,” but your friend, family member, or co-worker.

But just as there is greater understanding for those who can more or less function with mental illness, there still seems to be little understanding for those people who have difficulty functioning. In the 1980s there was a massive movement towards de-institutionalization, with the goal being to get people out of the state hospitals as quickly as possible and into local care and eventual re-integration back into the community.

Now on paper the idea sounds great, but many communities, especially smaller, more rural ones, had neither the money nor the facilities nor the personnel to handle these people. Many communities, large and small, began practicing “Greyhound therapy,” where they’d stick people with mental illnesses onto buses and ship them off to another town, the idea being “Let that city down the road worry about ‘em.”

This avoidance of responsibility by communities is nothing new, and parallels to it can be found in a medieval extortion scam. It seems that people suffering from mental illness, retardation, and other socially unpopular conditions would put on in a ship, which would then sail up and down various rivers. The captain would stop at each town along the route, and threaten to set his passengers free unless the townspeople paid him a fee. This was the origin of the expression “ship of fools.”

The failure of de-institutionalization is one of the reasons that the last two decades have seen such an increase in the homeless populations in our cities. Many of the people on the streets (though by no means all) suffer from mental illnesses, and have fallen through the cracks of a flawed system that lacks adequate infrastructure.

ASH in the 21st century is not a place to be afraid of, but is rather a place to go get better. The average stay is now 16 days. Ms. Biro-Pollard describes ASH as “like an ICU. We’re trying to get people stabilized and back on their medication, give them some information on how to find a job or how to get an apartment–we have social workers–we have a whole team of people…to get them back.

“The way [de-institutionalization] is supposed to work is that there are community centers that provide support in the community–well, they’ve been cut terribly. And when people can’t be provided for, they’re technically supposed to be able to bring them here.

… “Mental illness is such a cruel disease because a lot of people who are mentally ill cannot hold down jobs. Their families give up on them, so they end up, a lot of them, destitute….[In Texas] we’re forty-ninth in the nation in how we take care of the mentally ill, and fiftieth for our children. It doesn’t get much more dire than that.”   

So it goes without saying that if the State and Federal governments cannot adequately fund the medical and treatment functions of ASH, then they certainly cannot cough up the millions needed to restore 501 to its former glory.

Consider two more high-profile State buildings. The Governor’s Mansion was falling apart by the end of the nineteenth century, was a swing club for rats during the 1920s, and was an all-around embarrassment until the State finally renovated it in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. The State Capitol was a rabbit  warren of faulty wiring, cheap paneling, and false ceilings until a fire in the Lieutenant-Governor’s on-site apartment made the Legislature realize what a firetrap the whole building was, and authorize a massive renovation, expansion, and all-around improvement.

“But those are public state buildings,” you may argue. “People visit them all the time. School kids go on tours through them. Why spend $10 million renovating an old hospital?”

And I would have to counter by asking why is historic preservation such a dirty word in Austin?

Unfortunately, many opponents of historical preservation see that issue as an either/or matter, mistakenly thinking that the preservation of historical buildings is a hindrance to progress, forcing users of historical properties into time capsules, so to speak, where they have to dress in hoop skirts and high-buttoned shoes, serving as museum tour guides first and foremost. But such need not be the case.

Let’s look at San Antonio, for example. History oozes out of every other building there, yet it is still a modern, functional city. You can still discern what the town was like in 1960, 1920, or 1880. And because of that historical (and multi-cultural) flavor, it’s one of the most popular tourist and convention cities in the country. I hate to break it to you, but people don’t visit a city to see the same big box stores and generic strip malls they can see in Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, or Ft. Wayne.

At the same time, San Antonio offers a very instructive lesson as to how not to handle a preservation controversy. Back when Henry Cisneros was Mayor, a developer purchased a palatial old movie theatre downtown, intending to tear it down and construct an office building on the site. Naturally, preservationists wanted the building restored. Cisneros came up with a truly bone-headed solution: the theatre’s facade was preserved, the rest of it was torn down, and the modern offices went up behind the facade. As a result of that compromise, nobody was satisfied.

Now Austin is a century younger than San Antonio, but it gives off precious little of a sense of history. And many parts of this city look like they could be anywhere in the United States. Oh sure, we break up the steel and glass monotony here and there with yet another structure of limestone, sheet metal roofing, massive wooden trusses, and “Old West” decorative touches, but that is not the same thing as respecting our history and heritage.

Several months ago recommendations were made in the City Council to implement a set of design standards in order to prevent our city from looking more and more generic. Some developers kicked up a great hue and cry over this, saying that doing something different, doing something that’s not boring, would take extra effort and cost them money. And they assume that most people will lay back and say and do nothing because they don’t care enough to speak up.

It is clear to me that the State won’t provide the funds necessary to renovate 501 adequately. At least as early as 1949 it was described as “unsanitary, ill adapted, and a dangerous firetrap.” Since it’s always been located in a place few members of the public ever see, it is effectively “out of sight, out of mind.”

I submit that a full renovation of 501 would accomplish several things. First, it would provide safe, efficient, and gracious working facilities for the ASH staff. Second, it would become a tourist destination. Most of the older state hospitals in the US have been torn down, but a restored 501 would provide a home to ASH’s collection of historic artifacts and archival material, as well as offer the public a unique showcase of the history of the treatment of mental illness in this country.

Third, fear and ignorance are the result of unfamiliarity. If greater numbers of the public got to see what ASH is all about and learned what was fact and what was fiction as regards mental illness, the people who suffer from it, and how it is treated, then the public might be less likely to marginalize, demonize, and stigmatize those who suffer from mental illness. Communities might become better inclined to set up the sort of infrastructure needed to successfully treat these people on a local level. And some people might even become inspired to volunteer their time and talents to brightening the lives of people with mental illnesses, whether they live in a state hospital or the house next door.

—August 25, 2005

{If your group would like to schedule a tour of the historic ASH Administration Building, or if you would like to volunteer your time and talents, be they in arts, crafts, yoga, magic, music, or if you would like to be added to the ASH Volunteer Services Council mailing list, contact the Director of Community Relations at (512) 419-2333, FAX (512) 419-2327 or visit http://www.ashvolunteers.org.}


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