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Abandoned 19th-Century Insane Asylums To Get A New Lease On Life

Though insane asylums are often laden with negative stigma, one organization wants to repurpose abandoned facilities to give their dark pasts new life.


PreservationWorks, an advocacy group led by president, Christian VanAntwerpen and spokesperson and founding trustee Robert Kirkbride, aims to preserve and repurpose all remaining 19th-century Kirkbride hospitals throughout the U.S. with adaptive reuse projects, memorials and/or museums that educate people about the space's previous use, CityLab reports.

During the 19th century, the mentally ill were often sent to prisons and poorhouses, where they were subjected to poor living conditions and abusive treatment.

Recognizing the dire situation, activists Dorothea Dix and Thomas Story Kirkbride lobbied against this and fought instead for dedicated buildings that exposed patients to natural light, fresh air and green spaces. Kirkbride assumed symptoms of the mentally ill could improve if they were exposed to the right environmental conditions, CityLab reports.

Thanks to their efforts, an estimated 75 of these mental hospitals were built across the U.S. Today, only a handful remain.

The organization's website lists five hospitals that are getting a new lease on life, including locations in Ohio and Buffalo, New York. One Michigan asylum has been turned into houses for elderly residents that are shared with local artists who provide lessons to seniors in exchange for access to the space. Another institution in Washington, D.C., is becoming an office building for the Department of Homeland Security

CORRECTION, NOV. 22, 2:50 P.M. ET: A previous version of this story misstated PreservationWorks name and Robert Kirkbride's title. He is the spokesperson and founding trustee of PreservationWorks. The story has been updated.