The Athens Lunatic Asylum served the Southeast Ohio region for over 120 years and went through many changes and alterations in structure, care, and services, representing the local, state, regional, and national evolution of provisionfor the mentally distressed.  Today, a great deal of the facilities and supporting records remain to serve as historical reminders of our successes and failures in treating some of our fellow human beings.

Ground breaking for the institution occurred on November 5, 1868 with completion of the complex and opening for patients happening on January 9, 1874. Prominent local citizen, Civil War veteran, and state representative from Southeastern Ohio, Dr. William Parker Johnson headed up the drive to place the Asylum at Athens and won the passage of legislation in 1867.

The institution was originally a part of the Arthur Coates and Eliakim H. Moore farms located immediately south of Athens across the Hocking River and bisected by the road to the salt works, now Richland Avenue.  The Asylum originally sat on 141 acres (growing to over 1,000 acres over the years) including the southern flood plain of the river and the ridge line behind.

The building of the complex was based upon the design rendered by Levi T. Scofield of Cleveland. The original landscape design was made by Herman Haerlin of Cincinnati and implemented over a thirty year period by George Link, also of Cincinnati.  The first assistant superintendant and supervisor of most of the construction was Dr. Richard Grundy. The complex was based upon the concepts of Thomas Kirkbride (known as the Kirkbride Plan) consisting of an administration building with two wings of three sections each, the left side for men and the right side for women.  There was room for 572 patients.  The building was 853 feet long and averaged 60 feet in width.  Over 18,500,000 bricks were used in its construction, all made on-site.  The administration building contained reception rooms, apartments for the upper staff, a ballroom, and a chapel. 

Several extensions extended to the rear of the administration building for domestic and services purposes and included a laundry, kitchen, and boiler house.  The wings contained private rooms for patients with sitting or activity rooms at the ends of each ward.  The wards were categorized by the level of patient distress: those most functional were housed nearest to the administration building and those most distressed placed at the ends of the wings.  Under the original plan the only other structures were a Horse Barn and a water tower at the top of the hill.               
Over the years there were numerous modifications and additions to the original complex, mainly connected to the rear of the main buildings, and related to service structures and dining halls.  Upon the turn of the century and with the newer “Cottage Plan” concept, cottages and buildings such as the amusement hall were added to the complex.  In all there were seven cottages constructed with one torn down later to make room for the Receiving Hospital. By the 1950s the complex sat on 1,000 acres, consisted of about 78 buildings, and housed over 1,800 patients.

The only area of the institution to not see modifications over the years and the area best representing the human legacy of the Asylum is represented by the three graveyards on the grounds.  Burials began soon after the opening of the institution as there were deceased patients who were, for a variety of reasons, unclaimed by their families.  Until 1943 the burials were headed only by stones with numbers.  The names of the dead were recorded in grave ledgers.  Only one register is known to exist, containing the names of 1,700 of the over 2,000 burials.

Local lore has it that the Asylum was self-sufficient, but such a statement must be taken with a good bit of salt.  It took years to develop the gardens, general farm, vineyards, orchards, and the piggery, dairy, and poultry operations as well as the utilities for heat and light. In the early years many supplies were purchased from area vendors.  The beef cattle herd was not begun until 1963.  The swine and poultry operations appear to have started only after the turn of the century.

Much of the common work required for these efforts was performed by patients because it was believed work was therapeutic and because the labor was free.  By the 1950s, changes in treatments, complaints over the use of free labor, and a push to obtain supplies from local vendors gradually returned the institution to its original state of dependency on outside sources of labor and supply.

The main purpose of the Asylum was, of course, a place to house and treat people with varying mental problems. Bits of the lives of patients and employees show through in the remaining records.  Individual patient records are closed by Ohio law but a great deal of information is available about the human side of the history of the Asylum.  There is a surprisingly amount of statistics about patients – their backgrounds and conditions.  Patients could range from children to the aged and from people with the slightest distresses to those completely lost.  Furthermore, patients included those who today would not be considered mentally ill such as those suffering from epilepsy,
menopause, alcoholism, self-abuse, and tuberculosis. Depending upon their condition, a patient’s relations to the institution could range from full care to amazing freedom.  

The population of the patients and staff peaked in the mid 1960s and then experienced a steady decline throughout the 1970s and 1980s as the trend in de-institutionalization accelerated. As the numbers of people at the Asylum declined, the buildings and wards were abandoned. In 1988, the facilities and grounds (excluding the cemeteries) were deeded from the Department of Mental Health to Ohio University and the name changed to The Ridges.  A new mental facility was built across the Hocking River and opened in 1993.  In the meantime, the University began moving select departments to The Ridges and the furbishment of a few of the buildings was initiated.

Today, over a dozen buildings are occupied . There are many photographs of the Asylum now kept at the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections at Ohio University as well as other scattered collections in the area such as the Athens County Historical Society and the Ohio Historical Society.  By far the most numerous and interesting photos are those said to have been displayed at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.  The original prints reveal remarkable details of buildings, grounds, and people.        

The above mentioned archival repositories also house records concerning employees and staff, operational activities, and the handling and treatment of the patients.  Employee records reveal job descriptions, salaries, and training regimens. There are training and policy manuals.  There are letters and other correspondence concerning every day activities.  Furthermore, a great deal of general information on the treatment of the mentally ill and the institutions to house them is available from a wide range of publications in libraries.


Courtesy of Doug McCabe, Curator of Manuscripts,
Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections,
Alden Library, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio