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Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Clarissa Villondo

When you think of cursed places, haunted spaces, what pops into your mind? A house riddled with ghosts? A cemetery filled with shadowy figures? An asylum with the patients still inside? Running March 25, 2017 to January 15, 2018, The National Building Museum is turning you into one of the patients with their 10 years in the making exhibition, Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths 1852-2017.

Architecture of an Asylum

Straight jackets, electric shock machines, and high, high walls are all the sort of things that come to mind when you think of an asylum. While the facilities were all the rage during the 19th century, the deinstitutionalisation of the 1970s and 80s left a bad taste in the national conscious. Horror stories emerged about the treatment of patients, whether it was neglect or outright abuse. These stories still seep into pop-culture, serving as the theme for a season of American Horror Story, adding color to an urban legend in the documentary Cropsey or used as the setting in classics like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. No matter how far we get away from the golden age of the asylum, something about those often grand and horrifying old buildings still keep us up at night.

But this is only one of the stories the National Building Museum is trying to tell. While their exhibition covers our country’s constantly changing ideas about the treatment of the mentally ill (whether for the better or for the worse), the museum is also tackling how those ideas were reflected in the very bones of the buildings. Using architectural drawings, patient created paintings of the hospital, and a model that was constructed for the World’s Fair, the museum traces how these different theories ended up changing the very spaces patients, lived, worked and were treated in. More than that, the museum replicates those architectural details in the exhibition, putting you behind the high walls and twisty corners of St. Elizabeths itself.

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Objects from the National Library of Medicine, Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Castle Collection, and the National Museum of Health and Medicine as well as items fresh from the renovation of the buildings themselves are included in the exhibit. To say the exhibition is grand in scale would be an understatement. Starting from St. Elizabeths humble beginnings as a farm and ending with it’s transformation into both an entertainment destination and part of Homeland Security’s new headquarters, there are a lot of different stories to tell and the exhibition seems designed to allow you to jump from one to another, depending on your interests.

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One of the most treasured items in the exhibit is Dorothea Dix’s desk. Born in 1802, Dix was an activist and a huge proponent of the Moral Treatment movement, which emerged during the 18th century and fought for more humane care for the institutionalized. Dix wrote the legislation that helped establish St. Elizabeths at the very desk included in the exhibition. It was her and the first superintendent of St. Elizabeths, Dr. Charles Nichols who decided to model the hospital after the Kirkbride style, which was invented by Thomas Story Kirkbride. The style was in vogue during the time and argued that pleasing views and grand architecture assisted patients in their treatment. These large and imposing buildings, which were often ornate in structure, are usually the first things that come to mind when people think of asylums, due to their usage in pop culture. While many of the buildings are still around, and some have been beautifully restored, others have fallen into disrepair or have been demolished. Some of the loudest voices when it comes to preserving the Kirkbrides come from the companies that run haunted tours and walk-throughs of the buildings.

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Other corners of the exhibition cover things like Howard Hall (St. Elizabeths home for the criminally insane), the hospitals more famous patients like Richard Lawrence and John Hinckley, Jr., and segregation at the hospital. A large amount of the exhibition chronicles how self sufficient the hospital was, with patients working at the farm, creamery, laundry facilities and more, but the biggest piece is the aforementioned model of St. Elizabeths. Built for the St. Louis Worlds Fair in 1904, the model showcases how much St. Elizabeths expanded while it was still in full operation. During its peak, St. Elizabeths held 8,000 patients across it’s 300+ acres. As the Kirkbride plan had fallen out of style, the hospital had transitioned to the cottage plan, which argued that patients do better when housed in smaller buildings specified for their care.

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Along side the descriptions and explanations of St. Elizabeths ever evolving physical space, the museum has placed more personalized and humanizing objects. Art from patients hangs on the walls and behind display cases. Stained glass from the church is illuminated once more near a patient’s old clarinet. There are also toys, a croquet set and some old records on display. While the National Building Museum’s scope is huge considering it follows the hospital through 165 years of use, the museum never loses sight of the fact that it wasn’t just brick, limestone and iron. From the nurses to the patients, this was a space made up of thousands of people. Each with individual lives and stories.

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One of the scariest things about asylums, the thing that keeps them so close to the forefront of our minds even after the era of deinstitutionalisation is the idea of total isolation. It’s the thought of being sent away to a padded room where everyone you love, everyone you care about forgets you. The National Building Museum plays with this idea subtly in Architecture of an Asylum, trapping you behind large walls that form the space of the exhibition, but what they’re doing is really the opposite. By presenting these objects and ideas in their historical context, they allow St. Elizabeths and the people behind the hospital to be remembered the way they actually were. Nothing more and nothing less.

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