Friday, June 10, 2011

Harrisburg State Hospital "City on the Hill"

If only walls could talk, what kind of stories would they tell us? If I went looking for any walls to talk to in the Keystone State, I’d want to start at the Harrisburg State Hospital.

Social Reformer Dorothea Dix helped lobby to get help for the mentally handicapped in the state. In 1845 the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital and Union Asylum for the Insane was founded. In 1848 the name was changed to the less controversial Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital, after $50,000.00 was allotted to build. The hospital was completed in in1851, admitting its first patient on October 6th, becoming the first Mental Hospital in the state.

The Kirkbride building was one of the first insane asylums in the United States using the Kirkbride Plan. Kirkbride was a Philadelphia Psychiatrist in the mid-1800’s, who advocated a system of mental asylum design. The asylums tended to be large with Victorian design.

The Kirkbride building seemed to suffer from poor construction as it only lasted approximately 50 years. Between 1893 and 1912 the hospital was rebuilt, going for the more popular cottage plan. This would consist of several small buildings connected with long partially submerged tunnels, as opposed to one large building.

In 1921 the hospital again changed names, this time more appropriately just the Harrisburg State Hospital. At the hospital’s peak, it consumed more than 1,000 acres and over 70 buildings, and held as many as 2,441 patients. During its lowest levels of employment, it was scary how disproportioned it was, with 1 nurse to 166 patients. The state hospital earned the nickname “City on the Hill” for its self-sufficient ways, including having its own farm, stores and even a power plant. In 1986, the hospital was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1999 the site was used for the setting of the movie “Girl, Interrupted.” In fact, the administration sign that still hangs is a leftover from the film. On January 27, 2006 after 150 years of helping the mentally disabled, the doors were closed, though not completely. The state still uses the buildings as administrative offices.

Movie Trailer from "Girl, Interrupted"

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