Repressing the bricks and mortar of madness

Of Two Minds has alerted me to the fact that the famous-but-now-defunct Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York is going to be converted into a luxury hotel. It will probably join a long list of old psychiatric hospital conversions whose origin becomes lost to the public mind.

Bellevue has had a number of well-known patients over the years, perhaps most notoriously treating Mark Chapman, the person who killed John Lennon while likely severely mentally ill.

It was created as a centre of excellence, but particularly during the latter half of the 20th century was known for its chaotic state, as articles describing conditions in the 1960s and the 1980s attest.

There’s an increasing move to shut down the old Victorian asylums in favour of psychiatric units in general hospitals, and many of the old buildings have now been converted to other uses, often with their history unknown by most people.

Many of these buildings are quite beautiful, as the architecture and surroundings were designed to be therapeutic (even if the methods used within them were often brutal or based on ignorance).

I put some pictures online of Caroline Gardens, social housing in South East London which was originally built as the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum in 1827, and some images of Whitchurch Hospital in Cardiff, which is in the process of being closed to be turned into flats.

London’s Imperial War Museum is housed in the old Bethlem Hospital buildings, the institution that gave rise to the phrase ‘bedlam’, and Craiglockhart Hospital, where W.H.R. Rivers treated poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon for ‘shell shock’ during World War One (now immortalised on Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy) is now part of Napier University.

Often the conversions deliberately conceal the buildings’ original function. Have a look at the website for the luxurious Princess Park Manor, accommodation designed for the super-rich.

Click on the ‘history’ link. Absolutely no mention of the fact that the building was originally the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, one of London’s major Victorian psychiatric hospitals (pictured on the right).

Link to ABC News story on imminent Bellevue conversion.

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