For nearly 150 years, those thought to be intractably mentally ill in Indiana were housed there. It opened in 1848 as The Indiana State Hospital for the Insane, on more than 100 acres facing the fledgling National Road just west of Indianapolis.

Central State Hospital and environs in 1876. A. T. Andreas, Plan of Indianapolis. From the David Rumsey Map Collection.

In 1889, as other asylums opened around the state, its name changed to Central State Hospital for the Insane. In 1926, the name was shortened to just Central State Hospital. By this time, the grounds were well within the city and were bordered by rows of tidy middle-class homes.

The facility grew steadily until just after World War II. Enormous, imposing, ornate wards were built to house the patients, one for the men and another for the women. This map from the Central State Reuse Commission shows most of the buildings currently and formerly known to be on the site. Just check out the size and scale of the Women’s Wards. Photos of the Men’s Wards do survive; this map shows only their location but not their outline. The wards and some other buildings were condemned and razed in the 1970s, and modern, institutional buildings were built to replace them.

Central State Reuse Commission map. Building labels and dates added by Wikipedia user Mlzoiss.

Along the way, some real efforts were made to care for and treat patients using methods that changed as knowledge of mental illness evolved. The state shares some fascinating information about the hospital and its treatment methods here. (The state has an annoying habit of redesigning its Web site every few years, which hopelessly scrambles its page locations. So if link rot sets in, this Google search should find that page.)

However, allegations of patient abuse dogged Central State for decades. Such allegations were common to such institutions, leading to searches for alternative ways to treat the mentally ill. At the same time, Central State’s funding began to shrink. All of this led to the hospital’s closure in 1994.

The site found some uses in the years since. The Indiana Medical History Museum makes its home in the former Pathology Building, and the horses of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Mounted Patrol are kept and cared for on the grounds. You can see them out during the day when you drive by on Tibbs Avenue, the western border. But it’s a curious sight today, because this is a very inner-city neighborhood that knows the problems of poverty.

This 2014 aerial image gives you an idea of the site’s scale — just look at all those houses in the neighborhood to the east. Compare it to the map section I shared earlier.

Imagery ©2014 DigitalGlobe, IndianaMap Framework Data, USDA Farm Service Agency, Map data ©2014 Google, Indiana University
Imagery ©2014 DigitalGlobe, IndianaMap Framework Data, USDA Farm Service Agency, Map data ©2014 Google, Indiana University

In 2007, the city funded a reuse plan that recommended retail, commercial, educational, and recreational use of the site. Work to realize that vision has been underway for a few years now. On the Google map above, you can see the first results: apartments in the southeast corner, and a new charter school just west of them. Also, the former Administration Building has been renovated into furnished dormitory-style rental housing aimed at students at nearby Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Central State Hospital
1938 Administration Building, now apartments

Other buildings on the site are being renovated, too, although I don’t know what their uses will be. I’m pretty sure this was the Men’s Recreation building during the site’s asylum days.

Central State Hospital
1899 men’s recreation building, I think

In the background, you can see the former power plant building. In the foreground stands the carpentry building.

Central State Hospital
1886 power plant background left. 1937 carpentry building foreground.

I drive by here at least once a week, as I go to church in the neighborhood to the east. It’s exciting to watch renovations continue. Just recently, a football field in bright green artificial turf appeared just northwest of the charter school. All of this renewal is a bright spot in a blighted neighborhood.


8 responses to “The Central State Hospital for the Insane”

  1. Adam J. Coffman Avatar
    Adam J. Coffman

    During my first month as a youth minister in the area, one afternoon following Sunday services, I drove onto the grounds with several of the teenagers in tow–intent on seeing the ruins of Central State up close. Even growing up about 30 miles west of the city, I knew enough of the stories and rumors about the old place to be interested in seeing it. I was more than a little surprised to discover that none of the teenagers knew about the history of the property, or even that an insane asylum once occupied the sprawling grounds. I would also add, that the areas of the land which have not yet been reclaimed and rennovated, where there are abandoned buildings, broken street lamps, and desolate stone paths lined with overgrowth, a distictly eerie, “ghost town” feeling does linger in the air.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve heard too many stories about the police chasing people off the property to venture into the abandoned portion. But your story jibes with others I’ve heard: that the unreclaimed portion of the grounds has a ghost-town quality to it.

  2. justsydney Avatar

    I previously lived in the Administration building’s new student housing (moved out because they were raising the prices). My friends and I ventured into the old Bahr building since it’s still standing. Toward the beginning of August of 2014, the old security guard walked some friends and I around the carpentry building, the old power house, and we even went down into the tunnels! The building you named as the men’s rec hall is actually the old dining hall that they recently turned into a pretty nice event center for weddings, etc. the carpentry building is supposed to be turned into offices, while the powerhouse is a proposed brewery.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ooh, tunnels! I didn’t know there were tunnels!

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. gmalcom Avatar

    Hi Jim,

    Have just come across this article and I want to tell you how much I appreciate your detailed history on this facility. Back in the 1930-40-early 50’s, Back in the late 1970’s, I learned I had a couple of aunts who worked there….one being a Supervisor. Further, I had another aunt (different side of my family) who worked at Link Belt and lived just a couple of blocks from Central State. When I was a child (back in the 1940’s) her sister, my Mom, would visit her and we would often take walks and go by those “imposing” buildings. Being a very inquisitive child, I asked what those big buildings were and Mom and my aunt explained (in a very kind way) what the buildings were used for. Needless to say, for a child who asked too many questions, I was ready to “run” past those buildings on future walks.

    As an aside, not too far from Central State, there was an old railroad Round House that we would also walk to and I found watching the train engines being turned around….very loud but very exciting.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I can only imagine what it must have been like as a child to know what these buildings were for and have to pass them by! Super creepy I’m sure.

  4. gmalcom Avatar

    Let me correct my previous note: Back in the late 1970’s, I learned I had a couple of aunts who worked there in the 1930’s-40’s-early 50’s, one being a Supervisor.

  5. gmalcom Avatar

    Yep, back then it was creepy!

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