The 19th-Century Plan To Treat The Mentally Ill With Architecture

The U.S. is criss-crossed by a network of state mental asylums–the crumbling remains of an architectural and psychological experiment.

From 2002 to 2008, New York-based photographer Christopher Payne traveled to 30 different states to document abandoned mental asylums across the country. The grand exteriors and crumbling interiors of these once ubiquitous state-run hospitals are collected in his Asylum series, now on view at the Benrubi Gallery in New York.


“Some were totally abandoned and some were in use, but all of them were underutilized,” says Payne of the 70 institutions he documented over the seven-year period. As he visited more and more of the mental hospitals, he started to notice something else that most had in common–they were laid out in the shape of a “V,” resembling a row of birds in flight. Constructed in the mid-19th century, the buildings were all part of a system of mental asylum design advocated by Philadelphia psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride.

Stairs in the Mead Building, Yankton State Hospital, Yankton, SD

“[Kirkbride’s] plan was to understand mental illness and treat it through architecture,” says Payne. “It was adopted by other [hospital] superintendents and other architects around the country that would use the plan as a basis. And it became publicly accepted that you could only be cured in one of these.”

Among the elements of these building designs that were meant to have a curative effect? Staggered wings, designed so that each wing would receive sunlight and fresh air. The hospital’s superintendent, considered to be the institute’s “patriarch,” would live in the center of the building, an accessible distance from all other quarters. Most of these hospitals were surrounded by sprawling acres of farmland, where patients sometimes worked harvesting food or milking cows as part of their therapy and as physical exercise. In fact, many of the hospitals were completely self-sustaining, and essentially functioned as self-contained villages. Some were so large, they had their own ZIP code.

Ward in Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

Evidence of almost commune-like set-up is seen in Payne’s photographs, such as the one of an asylum hair salon, crumbling and sullied after years of neglect, or an abandoned greenhouse on one of the grounds. By the time Payne set out to visit asylums across the country, most of them had closed and the buildings were either abandoned or extremely underutilized. As public policy shifted toward community-based care in the 1960s and psychotropic drugs hit the market, these asylums were rendered obsolete and Kirkbridge’s plan was viewed a failed experiment.

After spending nearly seven years visiting the institutions, sometimes staying two or three days at a time, Payne says he looks back on the asylums with mixed feelings. “These were places of extreme contrast,” he says. On the one hand, overcrowding and segregation of class, gender, and race among the wings led many quarters to become places of abuse and abandonment, lobotomies, and other horrors depicted in popular books and film. On the other, the gardens, parks, trees, farms, greenhouses, reservoirs, and grand Victorian architecture made life better for many on the inside than it had been in their own homes.

As for the architecture, Payne says he feels a sense of loss that for the buildings no longer in use. “People look at the architecture and blame it because there’s a stigma attached,” he says. “But if you look at the details, you can see–it was never meant to be a warehouse.”


Asylum is on exhibition at the Benrubi Gallery in New York through March 26, 2016.

All Photos: Christopher Payne


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.