Period architecture, majestic views, history of madness

Regular readers will know of my ongoing fascination with the fate of the old psychiatric asylums and how they’re often turned into luxury apartments with not a whisper of their previous life.

It turns out, a 2003 article in The Psychiatrist looked at exactly this in 71 former asylum care hospitals.

It’s cheekily called ‘The Executives Have Taken Over the Asylum’ and notes how almost all have been turned into luxury developments. Have a look at Table 1 for a summary.

The authors also had a look at the marketing material for these new developments and wrote a cutting commentary on how the glossy brochures deal with the institutions’ mixed legacies.

The estate agents want to play on the often genuinely beautiful architecture and, more oddly, the security of the sites, while papering over the fact the buildings had anything to do with mental illness.

Examples of the language employed by property developers in sales brochures advertising old hospital buildings included ‘sanctuary’ and ‘seclusion’ in ‘grade II listed buildings’, ‘tastefully converted period buildings’ and ‘luxury penthouses’. There was a strong emphasis on security, with ‘a secure and private environment’, ‘24 hour security guards’, ‘security gates’ and ‘CCTV surveillance’. Original asylum architecture is even imitated in modern buildings: ‘the classic facades that emulate the original architecture’, and the clock tower of one former hospital was used as a symbol to represent the whole development.

Residents at the redeveloped site of Nethern Hospital will be greeted by ‘the gentle bounce of tennis balls on private courts’ and ‘the distant voices of children’. They will, however, remain unaware of the 1976 inquiry into high levels of suicides that found serious understaffing and unsatisfactory conditions on the wards.

At St George’s Park in Oxfordshire [previously Littlemore Hospital], prospective buyers were informed of the ‘original 19th century elegance’ and ‘original features including high ceilings’. They are not informed that the original psychiatric hospital has been newly built over the road.

In total, reference was made to the former psychiatric hospitals in only four of the 12 promotional brochures and web sites. This was in the general reference to a former hospital or by euphemistic language, such as ‘society’s less able’, referring to people with learning disability at Earlswood Hospital.

Since the article was written in 2003, many more have gone the same way.

Link to ‘The Executives Have Taken Over the Asylum’.

3 thoughts on “Period architecture, majestic views, history of madness”

  1. Fascinating. Our relationship with abandoned buildings. The estate agents falling into the same moral pit as other money grubbers. I personally like what was done with our local state asylum. It was an old Gothic style building whose fate was debated after closing; but ultimately it was added to the Register of Historic Places. Left for the curious and paranormal groups to (illegally, perhaps) investigate. This abandoned place was whispered about for years after I moved to the area, and sparked conversations not just about ghosts and legends but also the fate of the mentally ill, much more honest than selling it as housing.

  2. “the buildings had anything to do with mental illness.”
    The buildings did not have anything to do with mental illness. The buildings were jails.
    It was only in the year 1942 that medicine had Penicillin to give to sick patients.

    Those in power choose to call a prison a hospital , and as it is not a prison, the person being helped (not jailed) does not get legal representation for his/her interests. The prisoner/patient has to thank the jailor/healer for his/her confinement and punishment or the patient needs more “help”, more prison time.

    The healers don’t like the way the patient thinks.
    But the patient has not committed any crime.

    If physical evidence of a brain problem exists, such as epilepsy , then the patient is no longer “mentally ill”.

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