The state mental hospitals of the 19th and early 20th centuries—originally known as “lunatic asylums”—often operated within massive, majestic buildings, most of which are now abandoned or operating at a fraction of their former capacity. Christopher Payne spent several years meticulously photographing 70 of these architectural marvels, and his haunting images are collected in the beautiful new book Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, just out on MIT Press.
“For more than half the nation’s history,” Payne writes, “vast mental hospitals were prominent architectural features on the American landscape. Practically every state could claim to have at least one.”
The location of the hospitals, in the countryside, away from the city, afforded ample privacy and an abundance of land for farming and gardening, which were integral to the patients’ daily regimen of exercise. . . . The grounds provided relief from the indoor sights and sounds of the asylum and also served as a dramatic setting for the buildings, enhancing their grandeur. As visitors to the asylums never penetrated beyond the public lobbies of the administration buildings, it was these spaces and the landscapes that acted as the chief agents of propaganda to exert a positive influence on public perception.
Neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks, who worked for 25 years at Bronx State Hospital (now Bronx Psychiatric Center), pens the book’s introduction, a lively tour through the history of these asylums’ philosophies, inner workings, and patient populations as they shifted over the years.
Images copyright © Christopher Payne.