In its most recent past, the buildings of the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry, pictured here, were in a state of ruin. These ruins, combined with the less than desirable reputation the hospital had come to possess, attracted thrill seekers and urban explorers alike. It was rumored to have been the site of numerous activities ranging from satanic rituals to dance parties complete with DJs. However, all of this changed in 2004 when the site was sold to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, which intended to use the site for office buildings and housing for the elderly.
The hospital’s history was not always so ill regarded, however. It began as Byberry Farm, built in the hometown of Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), who is considered the Father of American Psychiatry. Rush was an advocate of asylums for the mentally ill. He believed that, with proper treatment, they too could be cured of their illnesses. As such, Rush would probably have approved of the farm started in Byberry to treat those with mental problems. Byberry Farm was self-sustaining, as patients did much of the work needed to tend the crops grown there. At the time, gardening was believed to be a cure for “mild cases of lunacy.”
Later, the facility was renamed the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases, although for a time this hospital outside of the city still operated as a work farm. Over time, more buildings were erected to try to solve overcrowding problems that would continually plague the institution. Expansion of the hospital continued into the 1940s. In the end, the hospital would consist of over 50 buildings. It became so large that it was described in a 1946 report to be “among mental institutions, a metropolis.”
This metropolis continued to experience problems, however. In addition to overcrowding, the hospital was faced with personnel shortages and deteriorating buildings. There were also accusations of patient abuse, claiming that residents of the institution were not given clothing and were generally not allowed the attention they required. The situation became so bad that on October 15, 1938 the hospital was taken over by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, at which time it became known as the Philadelphia State Hospital. The site was in such a deteriorated state that it cost over $8 million to rehabilitate. However, the attempts at rehabilitation of the site and expansion to solve overcrowding problems could not overcome its history of mismanagement and patient abuse. In 1990 the hospital was closed permanently, destined to sit as a ruin and site for thrill seekers until its purchase and redevelopment 14 years later.
- Pennsylvania State Archives, Department of Public Welfare. “A Pictoral Report on Mental Institutions in Pennsylvania.” 1947, pp. 4-9. Accessed online
- Bostick, Jim. “Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases, A Photo Series.” Gather (12 February 2006) http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474976729431 (accessed 12 October 2006).
- Greenberg, Andy. “Byberry’s Long Goodbye.” Philadelphia City Paper. 16 March 2006.
- Hall, Bolton. “Gardening as a Cure for Mental Breakdowns.” The Worlds Work…: A History of Our Time. Doubleday, Page and Company, 1900.
- “Philadelphia State Hospital (Byberry)”. Opacity (2006). http://www.opacity.us/site10_philadelphia_state_hospital_byberry.htm (accessed 12 October 2006).
- Wikipedia. “Benjamin Rush.” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Rush (accessed 12 October 2006).