Photography, Preservation, Road Trips

The Central State Hospital for the Insane

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.