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A mental hospital's breakdown

Opened during the Civil War and closed in 1984, Dixmont awaits its inevitable demolition

Sunday, April 20, 2003

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Strange as it seems in the spring, a Christmas tree, with a few pieces of tinsel on it, stands in a dark empty room inside the cavernous shell of what once was the dietary building at Dixmont State Hospital, one of the state's first insane asylums.

Dixmont State Hospital, shown lit by strobe light, stands in cavernous ruins that attract vandals, psychics and grade-B horror movie makers. The Kilbuck facility will likely be torn down to make way for a Wal-Mart Supercenter. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)


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Ralph Stroyne, a Kilbuck construction contractor whose family partnership owns this empty, decaying collection of buildings, isn't surprised or particularly upset with the tree or the remains of a makeshift camp inside.

"Some kids set up a party house in here," he says, gingerly stepping over broken glass and fallen ceiling panels and trekking through long, dark halls past endless numbers of tiny bedrooms, where residents of the asylum spent their lives isolated from mainstream society.

For several years, Stroyne has kept a guard on duty in a house at the end of the property, but that doesn't stop vandals from sneaking in. Not just vandals, but ghostbusters and psychics and makers of obscure B-grade horror movies are drawn to Dixmont, which even has an underground tunnel system that Stroyne said is spooky, especially at night.

"Last Halloween, [93.7 BZZ] did a radio program on Halloween night. They brought a busload of people up here at midnight," said Stroyne, 58, who lives on a small farm in Kilbuck adjoining the institution.

The old mental hospital is a popular filming site for professional and amateur filmmakers who record paranormal events using psychics. In 1999, Stroyne said, the Ford Motor Co. used a Los Angeles-based film company to shoot a commercial at Dixmont to introduce a new heavy duty Ford pickup truck. The commercial was shot in front of the decaying Reed Building, the main administration building that once was a historic landmark but was heavily damaged by fire and neglect long before he acquired the property.

The vandalism, which is constant, is more irritating than it is important. Stroyne isn't trying to preserve these ruins of an era of mental health treatment that began in the 1800s.

He is just waiting for a legal battle to be over so he can sell the property to an Emsworth development firm that wants to level the property and build a new Wal-Mart Supercenter on the site above Route 65 in Kilbuck, just outside Emsworth.

Peeling paint and the setting sun create colorful patterns on the walls of Dixmont State Hospital. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

If the development occurs, it will be the last chapter in the history of Dixmont, which operated for 122 years before closing in 1984, a casualty of chronic state budget cuts and changing philosophies about the care of the mentally ill.

In the years since Dixmont closed, many deals for acquiring, renovating or leveling it passed through the state bureaucracy before the Stroyne Family Limited Partnership -- Stroyne, wife Carole and son Tim -- finally acquired the property in February 1999. For $757,000, they got 407 acres, much of it hillsides unsuitable for construction, and the ruins of about 12 buildings from the abandoned institution.

That first year, they renovated the Cammarata building, a geriatrics center that opened in 1971. It is now called Emsworth Commons and is being leased to the Verland Foundation and the Glen Montessori School.

If the Wal-Mart is built, the remaining structures and the system of tunnels beneath them will be bulldozed out of existence.

Even though the buildings are in terrible shape, many people are fascinated with the institution and want to tour it, said Tim Stroyne.

"A lot of people ... think it is haunted. [But] I have never seen anything abnormal," he said.

The Stroynes are collecting memorabilia about Dixmont, and Tim Stroyne has sold a few artifacts on the eBay Internet site. The Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center has a wealth of photos, papers and oral histories.

"I sold a morgue table for a couple hundred dollars to a guy who turned it into a bar," Stroyne said. "I recently sold one of the pedestal sinks that was in the tunnels. There were bathrooms down there."

Dixmont is one of three major state mental institutions in Western Pennsylvania to close in the past 20 years, as part of an overall and still controversial effort to move special populations out of state institutions and back into communities.

Woodville State Hospital in Collier, also a mental hospital, closed in 1991. Its buildings have been torn down, and hundreds of acres of prime real estate are being turned into housing developments and shopping centers.

Western Center in Cecil, Washington County, closed in 2000. Its 221.76 acres of property have not been sold, said Samantha Elliott, spokeswoman for the state's General Services Administration in Harrisburg, which sells surplus state properties.

A makeshift, cardboard tombstone sits in one of the Dixmont's tiny rooms. The tombstone is a relic from a horror movie that a college student made on the site. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

With the closing of those three institutions, only 1,563 residents live in six state facilities still operating in Western Pennsylvania: Polk, Ebensburg and Altoona house people with mental retardation; Mayview, Warren and Torrance state hospitals house people with mental illness.

Institutions such as Dixmont belong to another era.

If these walls could talk

If the peeling, graffiti-covered walls of Dixmont State Hospital could talk, they would tell a thousand stories, stories about people whose illnesses or idiosyncrasies landed them there, stories about how treatment of the mentally ill in America has changed since the 1800s.

Dixmont, the oldest mental institution in Western Pennsylvania, opened in 1862 and was originally known as the Department of the Insane in the Western Pennsylvania Hospital of Pittsburgh.

It was named in honor of Dorothea Dix, the noted social reformer who rallied against housing the mentally ill in jails or poorhouses around the nation. She lobbied for its construction, selected the site where it was built, established a library for the patients and spent time there in 1876 as a guest of Dr. Joseph A. Reed, the first superintendent of the institution.

A letter and report from Dix were among the memorabilia placed in a time capsule buried in a glass jar in the cornerstone July 20, 1859. Stroyne said his workers recently dug it out of the wall of the Reed Building, the main administration building, but the jar was broken, and its contents, a soggy mess, now are in the hands of the Ben Avon Area Historical Association.

In its day, Dixmont was one of the finest examples of mental institutions that were built in an era when social reformers believed that the restful quiet and country air of a rural institution were beneficial to the cure or control of mental illness.

Such hospitals were developed because of the social outcry about treatment of the mentally ill, who were sometimes confined in cages, closets, cellars, stalls or pens in the early 1800s or were put on display for the public's amusement in the previous century.

In the 1800s, anything from alcoholism to masturbation to postpartum depression could land a person in a mental hospital. The hospitals also were filled with persons who suffered from old-age senility, cerebral arteriosclerosis, brain tumors and dementia, as well as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Patients had no rights. Superintendents spoke of their patients and staff as extended family, according to "Mad in America," a book about the history of mental illness published in 2002 by medical journalist Robert Whitaker.

Whitaker found that in the 50 years between 1840 and 1890, the population of hospitalized mentally ill grew from 2,561 to 74,000 patients. The number of mental hospitals, private and public, leaped from 18 in 1840 to 139 in 1880.

When Dixmont opened its doors in 1862, its initial population was 113 patients transferred from the Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Pittsburgh, which had opened an "Insane Department" a decade earlier.

Beryl Johnson of Moon, a retired psychologist who holds a doctorate, worked at Dixmont from 1970 to 1984 and chaired the historical committee that gathered information about its history, which was sent to the Heinz History Center and the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg.

Johnson said the hospital cared both for patients who were indigent and those who could afford to pay, and some of the lifelong residents included Civil War veterans. In the early days, members of wealthy families came to Dixmont for a summer of "rest and medical care." Because they could afford to pay for it, they received better services.

"The private patients usually were alcoholics who were sent there to dry out," Johnson said. "They were served different meals from the regular patients."

In better times, photos of Dixmont reflect an almost genteel lifestyle.

A large greenhouse on the premises grew fresh flowers for the wards, dining rooms and grounds. Its gardens had formal flower beds with stone benches and statuary and a goldfish pond. Inside the institution there was a player piano, donated by the family of one of the private patients.

In truth, physicians lived on site in style, while the patients who served as their waitresses ate on tin dishes in the ward dining rooms.

During the era of Dr. Henry A. Hutchinson, superintendent from 1885 to 1945, meals in the doctors' dining room on the first floor of Reed Hall were formal, with more than one course and served with ornate silverware.

Hutchinson sat at one end of the table, and his wife was at the other. At the end of the meal, finger bowls were offered, and after all had washed their fingers, Mrs. Hutchinson announced to the doctors, "You may be excused."

From work to rockers

There were recreational opportunities for the patients, including croquet, billiards, baseball, tennis courts and winter sleigh rides.

Hutchinson believed in work therapy and rewarded patients for their work with social events and money. At dances held for patients in the chapel four times a year, Hutchinson would start the dance by dancing with a patient or an employee.

"Dr. Hutchinson took a personal interest in everything," according to the memoirs of Christine Turner, who worked as his cook beginning in 1928. Johnson interviewed Turner for oral histories about Dixmont.

"He would ride his sulky, pulled by his beloved horse, Rosie, all over the grounds, and when he found something he felt needed attention, he would write a note to the person in charge to remedy it -- also, personal notes of thanks if he found something that pleased him," Turner said.

As the institution grew, its population burgeoned, as did the populations of mental hospitals across the country. By the end of the 1800s, the census at Dixmont reached between 1,200 and 1,500 patients and thousands of employees.

Mental illness carried a significant stigma. In researching the history of Dixmont, Johnson found an old letter written by a family who had been informed that their father had died at the hospital.

"They refused to come and get the body ... and asked the superintendent not to write them again," she said.

In 1895, a training school for nurses was established at the institution.

Patients were segregated by sex. Active and disturbed patients were kept in one ward, where they were sometimes restrained in straitjackets and leather hand and leg cuffs.

Through the years, treatments for mental illness, some of them now regarded as barbaric, were tried on patients.

Remains of hydrotherapy tubs indicate that mental patients at Dixmont were submerged for hours in long baths, sometimes in hot or cold water, in a treatment that was popular in the late 1800s. It might involve applying ice caps on their heads or bandages wrapped around their eyes and ears to shut out other sensations.

"They also sprayed them with water hoses," Johnson said.

In 1907, Dixmont was legally separated from the Western Pennsylvania Hospital and individually incorporated as Dixmont Hospital for the Insane.

A sewing room opened the following year.

The wide hallways of Dixmont State Hospital were once crowded with mentally ill patients. Now they are littered with graffiti. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"Everything that is worn or used by the inmates is made by them as far as possible," the Pittsburgh Dispatch reported in a 1912 article. The story added that 25 or 30 women "who delight in making clothing" also were happily engaged in repairing shoes and producing mattresses and pillows.

In 1912, the population had grown so large that the staff refused to accept new admissions. By 1926, about 1,038 patients were living at Dixmont.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, employees worked for room and board but didn't get salaries. When unemployed men would come to the hospital looking for work, Dr. Hutchinson would send them to the kitchen for sandwiches, which they could take with them.

Patients who could afford to pay their own way received special privileges, and they could buy special meals on Sundays for $1.25.

Turner, the cook, remembered the fine hooked rugs, produced by female patients, that were sold "for as much as $150 to some Sewickley socialites."

Despite the attempts at self-sufficiency, by 1946 the institution was in deep financial trouble. That's when the state acquired it and renamed it Dixmont State Hospital.

In the 1940s and 1950s, mental hospitals around the country began using electroshock therapy to dull the intellects of the patients and quiet the wards of mental hospitals. Doctors also began using experimental prefrontal lobotomies, the surgical removal of a frontal lobe of the brain, to try to cure mental illness.

Records indicate that both procedures were used at Dixmont, but probably not to the extent as in teaching hospitals such as the state institution in Warren, said Johnson, who later served as superintendent of the Warren facility.

One former employee, who rose from ward attendant to accountant, said the hospital was divided into a male side and a female side. He said one female ward was used for electroshock therapy and insulin shock therapy that involved repeatedly putting patients into hypoglycemic comas to try to change behavior. And one male ward was the "untidy ward where patients were tied in bed with handcuffs and leg cuffs."

More than 1,300 graves, marked and numbered on small stones, can be found in the woods on the Dixmont property. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Between 1955 and 1957, the hospital began using dramatic new drugs, including Thorazine, to treat the mentally ill.

But huge deficits continued, and by the 1960s, the philosophy for treating the mentally ill began to change. President John F. Kennedy, whose sister Rosemary functioned at the level of an infant after undergoing a prefrontal lobotomy, pushed for a new approach to establish a community-based system of helping the mentally ill..

Patient rights came into play for the first time, and new procedures were put into place that made it more difficult to commit a patient.

Helen Wolf of Baden, Beaver County, a secretary in the volunteer coordinator's office from 1965 to 1984, said the atmosphere at Dixmont felt a lot like the 1975 movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," based on Ken Kesey's novel.

With the patients' rights movement, the state could no longer force patients to work at the facility without paying them. Wolf said patients were banned from working.

"That was so sad," she said. "They would sit in their rocking chairs."

A caring staff

All the while Wolf worked at Dixmont, she said, state officials would visit the institution and talk about closing it. There were no more lobotomies performed in those days, but patients were getting electroshock treatments "on Mondays and Thursdays."

The state began transferring patients to Mayview State Hospital and other local institutions.

"When I went to work there in 1965, there were more than 1,000 patients. When we closed, there were only 300," said Wolf.

After Dixmont closed, she organized employee reunions. As many as 260 or 270 former staff members would turn out, including psychologists, nurses, office workers and maintenance people.

"The camaraderie was so fantastic. We were almost like a family," Wolf said.

"For as primitive as the conditions may sound, Dixmont was a hospital where staff did care about the patients, and this feeling of compassion and caring continued until the day the doors closed," Johnson said.

After it closed, the institution remained vacant for 15 years while the state General Services Administration tried unsuccessfully to find a buyer who would deal with the empty asbestos-ridden buildings.

By the late 1990s, the state's minimum-bid price dropped so low that Stroyne decided to bid on the property that adjoins the small farm where his family lives.

"I didn't want a steel mill or a plastics plant to be built there," he said.

Stroyne sold off some of the property and is keeping some of the hilly, undeveloped land for his farm.

The state of Pennsylvania continues to preserve a 1-acre cemetery where 1,300 former patients are buried. Soon it will be the only reminder of an almost forgotten era.


Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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