Before it became a fashionable streetcar suburb, West Philadelphia was infamous as as place where the city’s indigent, and mentally ill were warehoused out of sight and mind. As historian Robert Morris Skaler wrote, “if one was incurable, insane, consumptive, blind, orphaned, crippled, destitute, or senile, one would most likely end up in a faith-based charitable institution or asylum somehwere in West Philadelphia, beyond the pale.” It’s famous institution was the Blockley Almshouse, a charity hospital founded in 1797 and for many years located at the intersection of 34th and Walnut Street. Although Blockley sold a large chunk of land to the University of Pennsylvania for its new campus in 1871, the institution continued to operate as the Philadelphia General Hospital until the 1977, Inflatable Irish pubwhen it went bankrupt. Nonetheless, a group of dedicated physicians and reformers lobbied the Commonwealth to make mental asylums more humane and aesthetically pleasing, hoping that beauty, air, and natural light would help improve the patients’ condition. This part of the “Romantic” aesthetic that was sweeping the nation. One example of this aesthetic was Laurel Hill Cemetery, a pastoral urban park meant to elevate the spirits of the bereaved. Opened in 1836 on the banks of the Schuylkill, this burial ground was a departure from the crammed, bleak urban cemeteries of the past.
Samuel Sloan, one of the city’s most prolific architects of the so-called “Picturesque style,” was best known for his suburban villas and country homes. His charming Italianate residences can be found all over West Philadelphia, most notably on Woodland Terrace. These homes radiated Victorian propriety, yet also had a splashes of whimsy: gingerbread porches, glass cupolas, and Tuscan eaves. Yet Sloan’s largest surviving commission in Philadelphia is not a mansion, but rather the sprawling Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disease, completed in 1859. Also known as Kirkbride’s Hospital, it originally occupied a vast swath of land bounded by 46th Street to the east, 50th Street to the west, Market Street to the south, and Haverford Avenue to the north.
The institute was founded by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a physician at the Pennsylvania Hospital who treated the mentally ill in an age before depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder were medical mysteries, not diagnosed conditions. As a young medical student, Kirkbride saw the mentally ill treated (and punished) like convicts. As he built his own practice, Kirkbride theorized that in order to find the root cause of insanity, “we would have to go back to a defective early education the want of proper parental discipline,’ in which…(his) mind was always linked to parental affection.” For him, the best treatment was compassion. “It is only by a constant remembrance of the principles of an enlightened religion, and by untiring efforts to elevate, in every rational mode, and character of all these institutions, and by leaving nothing undone to extend and improve their facilities for treatment, that we shall be found practically to adopt that golden maxim which should be seen, or it not seen, at least practices in hospitals for the insane everywhere, ”all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even to them.”
Kirkbride’s plan for mental hospitals set the standard for over half a century. Hospitals built according to the “Kirkbride Plan” had a so-called “batwing” floor plate. The central administration block was located at the center of the structure, and was usually topped by a dome or tower. The patient dormitories radiated out from this main block. The more independent patients of the institution would be in the wings closer to the center of the structure. The less independent ones would be placed in the more remote wings. Each wing had its own parlor and restrooms, as well as dumbwaiters and speaking tubes to ensure smooth communication between the wards.
The resulting structure resembled a British stately home more than a traditional mental institution. The buildings were surrounded by 130 acres of lawns and trees. Inmates could stroll, work in the kitchen garden, or go for carriage rides. Dr. Kirkbride also set up lecture series for the edification of the residents.
Yet there was one grim reminder of the complex’s purpose: a stone wall encircling the entire site, keeping the residents in and curiosity seekers out.
Ultimately, grand architecture and beautiful gardens did not make up for the lack of scientific knowledge of the mentally ill . Despite Kirkbride’s best intentions, abuse and maltreatment ran rampant in even the most beautifully designed mental institutions, most notably at the infamous Pennhurst State School in Spring City, Pennsylvania. By the late 20th century, most of the grand asylums built according to the “Kirkbride Plan” were shuttered, their inmates given medications that, state officials hoped, would allow them to better integrate into greater society.
After the arrival of the Market Street Elevated in 1907, much of the acreage was sold off and developed into rowhouses. Yet Samuel Sloan’s administration building survives largely intact. It still serves its original purpose: housing the Kirkbride Center, a 250-bed privately-owned treatment center for mental illness and addiction.
Richard S. Greenwood, “National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form, Kirkbride’s Hospital, Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital,” United States Department of the Interior, 1958.
Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p.7.
“Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride,” Kirkbride Buildings. http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com/about/kirkbride.html, accessed September 13, 2017.