The article, “Where Asylums Live On,” in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, from November 1, 2013, offered a reprise of the history of “insane asylums,” or state psychiatric hospitals in the U. S. that previously dominated inpatient psychiatric care for the better part of an entire century. The decommissioning of scores of state hospitals began in the second half of the 20th Century with the shift in emphasis to “de-institutionalization” of the chronically mentally ill to outpatient settings. This NYT article reveals the typical state of inpatient psychiatric care in the Third World where many countries currently rely on the old model of institutional public psychiatric hospitals for their national systems of psychiatric care.
There are now so many state hospitals closed in this country since especially the 1980’s or so, that there are websites devoted to their history [such as Historic Asylums of Amercia], archival historical photographers have documented their settings for posterity, and some organizations have adopted these institutions and offer “state hospital” tours and vacations for the psychiatrically curious. [I can just see myself NOT taking my family to another state’s abandoned state hospital campus and enjoying the view, isolation, gutted ruins and what not.
My home and practice state of North Carolina, has undertaken an impressive task of closing and replacing the previous four state hospitals, the famous Dorothea Dix Hospital of Raleigh, John Umstead Hospital in Butner NC north Durham [the previous “Camp Butner, the second largest World War II medical hospital in the Eastern US for wounded service people], Cherry Hospital of Goldsboro [eastern NC], and Broughton Hospital [western NC] of Morganton NC, just east of Asheville NC. One of the new hospitals, Central Regional Hospital has opened in Butner, and replaces both Dix and Umstead. The new Cherry Hospital will open in a year or so, and the new Broughton Hospital in Morganton, will open in less than two years. Each of these hospitals represents an investment and expenditure of more than $150M and North Carolina is one of the few, if not the only state in the country committing to the replacement of all its state hospitals.
North Carolina has consequently four elderly state hospital campuses to “re-purpose,” as have a number of other states, especially New York for instance. Other states such as New York, have already found the task to market and sell these old, storied and “retro” properties, to be difficult to sell. North Carolina has already shown commendable creativity and charity in brokering a remarkable deal with the city of Raleigh to turn the Dix Hospital campus into a city park, perhaps an extension of North Carolina State University since its property abuts part of NCSU’s fabled high-tech Centennial campus. Also, it will reportedly convert part of the campus to multi-modal housing and commercial properties. Everyone wins, the state harvests some revenue, the populace, students, the university all inherit facilities an property at a wonderfully low price that would not have happened otherwise.
But North Carolina’s and Raleigh’s circumstance is by chance very fortuitously helpful. The campus of the closed Dix Hospital is located on a premium site and location, near the university, near the state fair grounds and a short distance to downtown Raleigh, and convenient to major highways. If the phrase “location, location, location,” ever applied it would be here. The property is worth hundreds of millions and lent itself to an easy win-win solution for everyone from developers to the state, to the citizens of the area.
Most state hospitals in this country were built in out of the way locations away from centers of commerce or population. The mentally ill were separated from society in severe geographic fashion in ‘asylums,’ located in out-of-the-way small towns. That was preferable in those days. But with the current mounting need to dispose of dozens of properties nationwide, there has emerged a marketing challenge perhaps quite unique in my real estate ignorant world view.
New York’s department of state history has had a photographic chronicling effort devoted to state hospitals since, if memory serves me well, 1995 or so. There are now many books published on the history of various state hospitals especially on the East Coasts where they have obviously existed much longer than in the relatively newer states in the western United States. One book derived from this effort is The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penny and Peter Stastny, the latter a psychiatrist and documentarist-photographer. This book is nothing short of fascinating and I highly recommend for any reader of unusual historical inquiry. It primarily focuses on piecing together the lives of patients at a state hospital in New York state from the belongings in suitcases they carried to their admission.to the hospital. These remnants of forgotten lives were found decades later, even after the hospital had been closed by the authors of this book. But more germane to my topic here, it offers a bit of a view into the fate of many closed state hospitals that have languished empty and unwanted in the modern world of real estate development and marketing. This particular hospital was Willard State Hospital.
A recent news article, details the enormous dilemmas, complexity, and costs attendant to even readying such abandoned properties for resale and business “recycling. The article, “County looking at state hospital complex,” published two days ago at the time of this writing, June 1, 2016 in the Nevada Daily Mail newspaper details what faces states and localities trying to effect any solution to this quiet enigma posed by abandoned state hospitals. Expenses of demolition, environmental hazards including asbestos disposal, site preparation, etc., are all described in this piece.
So, if anyone wants real estate in out of the way locations in almost any state in the Union, there appear to be many bargains awaiting the hardy [or foolhardy?] entrepreneur. Good luck.