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Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
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Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals

4.25  ·  Rating Details ·  713 Ratings  ·  104 Reviews

For more than half the nation's history, vast mental hospitals were a prominent feature of the American landscape. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, over 250 institutions for the insane were built throughout the United States; by 1948, they housed more than a half million patients.

The blueprint for these hospitals was set by Pennsylvania hospital sup

Hardcover, 209 pages
Published September 4th 2009 by MIT Press (MA)
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from the book:
Patient poem on a basement wall,
Augusta State Hospital, Augusta, Maine

" If my heart could speak,
I'm sure it would say, I wish I were
someplace else Today.
Among these books, a great amount of knowledge there must be,
but what good is Knowledge where others carry the keys.
Through the last ten years many improvements have been made,
but the final words seem to say, don't forget, my good man you're still
a patient here today. Intelligence,ability,and knowledge surely will
never l
Dec 12, 2009 Beth rated it really liked it
I grew up in the shadow of Danvers State Hospital. It closed the year of my high school graduation; some in my circle of friends were prone to facetiously answering "Danvers State!" when asked where they were attending college. The place, with its looming red brick Gothic architecture, was a favorite clandestine meeting place of youth inclined to illegally imbibe--or ghost hunt--at midnight on weekends. It has not an alluring place for me. In truth, I have only been to the grounds once, while dr ...more
Andrea Mullarkey
Aug 02, 2012 Andrea Mullarkey rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I was gobsmacked by this book! I don’t know what I was expecting when I requested it, but when it arrived I discovered a volume filled with beautiful photographs of crumbling asylums. It is a form of photojournalism that tells of the majesty of asylums: their architecture, interiors, landscaping and purpose. As well it tells the story of their decline and decay: the shattered windows, peeling paint, abandoned suitcases and trees growing up through cement. The pictures themselves are stunning and ...more
Oct 13, 2009 Trin rated it it was amazing
Beautiful and eerie collection of photographs of (mostly) abandoned state mental hospitals. There are two informative essays by the photographer, Christopher Payne, and one by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, but in many ways the images speak for themselves. Payne highlights the grand, imposing edifices of these decaying institutions, their grandeur making it possible to understand how a mental asylum was once considered a great coup for a community. But it’s impossible not to also see the d ...more
The age of the state mental hospital has come and gone. Many of these enormous edifices have already been razed to make way for developers, and the remaining structures are boarded up, or only make use of portions of their once expansive rooms and grounds – a very different picture from their heyday. A 1948 census/study done by the state of Illinois found that there were 539,000 patients in mental hospitals around the country. In the 1950s there were 33,000 mental patients on Long Island alone. ...more
Oct 30, 2009 Ashley rated it liked it
Not what I was expecting! This is like a coffee table book - oversized and mostly pictures. I love Oliver Sacks and he did a great intro. I had no idea that insane asylums (later referred to as state mental hospitals) were initially symbols of pride for a community that showed their forward-thinkingness. As time advanced, however, things went downhill leaving us with the common negative stereotypes we have today.

The pictures were good - some sad, some surprising (bowling alleys and patient-run T
Jonathan  McGaha
Aug 31, 2016 Jonathan McGaha rated it really liked it
A book of photography and essay, it excels at both. The essay, by Oliver Sacks, is a great survey of the intent, expansion, idealism and largely inevitable failure of mental asylums as a model for treatment. Sacks walks us through the theory: the need for open spaces and exercise, theater and work, that the original theory behind old practices for the treatment of mental illness and how the doctors and staff were often resistant to new science and drugs. He also tells how states, eager to no lon ...more
Becky Loader
Oct 19, 2015 Becky Loader rated it really liked it
Payne's photographs will trigger so many thoughts and emotions. Be prepared.

The prologue and beginning essay explain the institution of mental health treatment in the 19th and early 20th century. I was fascinated by the explanation of how the original meaning of "asylum" (to mean a refuge) was behind the use of the term to describe mental treatment facilities. The use of "moral treatment" in dealing with the mentally ill was unique to the time and required a certain type of physical environment.
May 22, 2012 Mike rated it really liked it
Overall, as splendid as one could wish for in a single-volume book of photography of abandoned mental hospitals. The Internet showcases a variety of sites devoted to explorations of such hospitals and "homes for the feeble-minded" as they were once known, and while some sites are just grainy photos of kids mucking about in an abandoned hospital, some sites are beyond amazing with photography able to rival the best professional efforts. So, to pick up a book with such photography when a wider spe ...more
Jun 17, 2011 Jane rated it it was amazing
This book gives you a brief history of the evolution of state psychiatric institutions ("insane asylums") and their original purpose to provide respite and care for people with mental illnesses. As I thumbed through the brilliant photos of the former asylums in their current state; however, I was overwhelmed by the sadness and helplessness that the institutions exude. A patient poem that was written on the wall of a basement in the Augusta State Hospital in Maine is particularly poignant - and p ...more
Mar 17, 2013 Heidi rated it liked it
Rather odd little coffee table book filled with photographs of abandoned mental hospitals. The photographs were eerie and evocative, like any photographs of ghost towns or abandoned buildings. But I just kept thinking this was all such a waste. The asylums were enormous, some with a population larger than my home town. (Blackfoot's very own State Hospital South, since it's not abandoned, didn't make it into this book.) And they had barns and fish hatcheries and their own power plants. But instea ...more
Dec 11, 2009 Carrie rated it it was amazing
This book had a vert short, but informative essay about the history of American asylums and with the amazing photos the book provides, I've come to realize how beautiful these buildings are and how important they were to the people who called them home. They are not the places I always believed them to be. This book has let me see that asylums are not scary, they are actually quite sad and it is sad to think that their incredible history lays deteriorating and has been forgotten. It is a beautif ...more
Mary Whisner
When I checked this out of library, I wasn't expecting what it is: a collection of photographs of old asylums with introductory essays by Oliver Sacks and Christopher Payne, who is the photographer and is also an architect. That's the thing about checking out ebooks. When you check out a physical book, of course you know what you're holding in your hands. I didn't realize that this was a "coffee table book" until I saw that it could only be loaded on my iPad, not my Kindle. In any event, I did e ...more
May 06, 2017 Stacia rated it it was amazing
This book includes two essays at the beginning - one from the photographer, one from neurologist Oliver Sacks - that give some history on asylums and the project.

Then, it's off to the amazing photos. Payne captures the beauty of the architecture, the feeling of isolation and protection created by these mammoth buildings situated among rolling hills and countryside.

He also captures the feeling of desolation and hopelessness inside the walls, sharing photos of abandoned equipment, empty work roo
Liz Clappin
Jan 15, 2017 Liz Clappin rated it it was amazing
Though more of a photo essay than a true book, the writing is thoughtful and poignant with a strong foundation in history and well researched. The photos are stunning and need no captions. Definitely an excellent introduction to the system of state hospitals for casual readers and historians alike.
Jan 10, 2016 Angela rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Those with interest in architecture, history, or mental illness
This is my second attempt at reviewing this book. My initial long review was written on my ipad, and disappeared after I hit "submit."

This book was very moving, more than I expected a book primarily made up of photographs to be. It was a large book, what might be considered a "coffee table book," documenting the buildings that used to house the nations many extensive mental institutions. During the process of creating this book, Mr. Payne visited more than 70 institutions, in varying states of u
Patricia Weenolsen
Jan 04, 2012 Patricia Weenolsen rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Interests in Architecture, Mental Illness, Design
Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, Photographs by Christopher Payne with an Essay by Oliver Sacks. Published by MIT Press, 2009.

This is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. The photographs portray stunning refuges for the insane, designed by some of the greatest architects of the last two centuries. These asylums are now crumbling, either subsiding back to earth or being torn down by developers to create apartments for supposedly normal people like you and me.
Sheena  at Hot Eats and Cool Reads
I was so excited when I received the email saying this book was on it's way to me via the MN Link Interlibrary Loan System. The timing was perfect. In just over a week, my siblings and I will be touring Fergus Falls State Hospital in Fergus Falls, MN. I will be posting about our tour in a future post!

This book contains images from the Fergus Falls Hospital as well as many others around the United States. I am wowed by the Kirkbride Architecture and the massive size of the buildings and grounds.
Jan 07, 2012 John rated it it was amazing
Numerous other studies of abandoned asylums, both amateur and professional, have emphasized the individual patient experience in these institutions, by focusing on discarded belongings. Payne's photography, however, takes a step back to focus on the asylum on a community level. In his afterword, he talks about his admiration for the self-sustaining quality of these forgotten institutions, and Oliver Sacks' essay explains the benefits of that self-sustenance from a clinical perspective - as well ...more
Apr 25, 2015 Kayla rated it it was amazing
Another great showcase of the fabulous buildings that housed troubled people and their caretakers years ago. The buildings are such wonderful examples of beautiful architecture and it's truly shameful that the buildings are largely being destroyed or left to rot and collapse in on themselves. It's hard to really get a feeling of how incredible these buildings are until you are able to visit one. I have been lucky enough to do just that and the buildings still hold a certain atmosphere that make ...more
Elaine Meszaros
Dec 03, 2014 Elaine Meszaros rated it it was amazing
This collection of photos is a true Rorschach test for the reader. The decrepit Victorian-era buildings are both beautiful and sinister. Abandoned rooms show both care and terrifying restriction - gardens, beautify parlors, movie theaters, coffee stands, barred doors and rooms of straightjackets. As one after another of these large state hospitals falls nuder the wrecking ball, Payne has made it his job to document what were once common institutions. Most were closed in the 1970s in what was arg ...more
Oct 06, 2013 Kate rated it really liked it
I've always been fascinated by insane asylums, and yet this book taught me something new. I had in my head this image of the 1950s-1960s mental hospitals. The introduction spoke of asylums as self-sustaining places where patients would work, and could enjoy leisurely walks on beautiful grounds. I never put much thought into why these enormous, beautiful buildings were erected - and through these photographs I realized how full of life and beauty these places once were, long before the overcrowdi ...more
Jul 30, 2015 Jay rated it it was amazing
As a photographer who has an unquenchable appetite for history and urban exploring in old ruins, Asylum, is a photography-nerd's dream come true. The pictures are hauntingly beautiful in a tragic way. While there is not a narrative that will give you stories of any individual patient, the beauty of this book is the photography. It enables one to create an image in their head and only imagine what life must have been like for those left to live—and often die—in state-run mental hospitals.

I cannot
Jul 21, 2009 Vanessa rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The author gathers a collection of photographs of mental hospitals that have mostly been abandoned and are now left to the elements and time. The images evoke feelings of desolation, sadness, loss, and surprisingly, admiration for some of the more noble rehabilitation efforts and the beauty of the architecture.

I was especially touched by the remnants of the residents: the suitcases left behind, the straitjackets and clothes still in decent condition, and the countless numbers of grave markers a
Jun 24, 2014 Trina rated it it was amazing
So this is a really sobering, but excellent look at Asylums. It's not a history of the asylums per say, but...

The photography is stunning, and really captures the essence of the asylums. The failed institutions, once grand buildings and considered the pinnacle of human compassion and medical knowledge, now dilapidated and ruined, a failed experiment that claimed far too many lives. There isn't much to actually *read*, but I think the photos speak for themselves. (a thousand words and all that..
Aug 14, 2013 Carrie added it
Recommends it for: Photographers and lovers of architecture
If you are a connoisseur of photographic art and architecture you will love this book. Minimal 13 page essay followed by page after page of a gracious mix of gorgeous black and white and color photographs of both beautiful and beautifully dilapidated American Asylums! Love the doors on page 64: “WHO CARES” painted on one of them. Also the BW lighting and peeling paint on 74. The toothbrushes on 93, which are, for the most part, in alphabetical order, show a testament to the order of institutions ...more
Apr 24, 2014 Kathryn rated it really liked it
Incredible essay by Oliver Sacks on the history of the mental asylum. It was amazing to learn so many things about the self-sufficiency of the early asylums. Christopher Payne provides a generous spread of pictures from the long forgotten buildings that presents the viewer with strong emotions. The deserted hallways, empty rooms, and architectural disarray lend a reminder of the patients who once called many of these institutions home. Asylum is a visual journey into the world of state hospitals ...more
Dec 15, 2009 Irene rated it it was amazing
A haunting, painful book to read. The extraordinary photographs complementary to the text offer a contextual glimpse into mental hospitals, which honorably began as "asylums." The deplorable decline that transformed such havens into virtual prisons utilized to experiment with and medicate its patients into submission is very different from its dignified beginnings.

For those who found daily life overwhelming, it was an accessible, inviolable refuge and a peaceful shelter. A safe sanctuary, which
Feb 25, 2012 Kai rated it it was amazing
I waited for this book for a long time. It's done so beautifully and with such respect for the patients who lived their lives in these places. It shows both sadness and beauty in the day to day working of asylums and the wonder of their architecture.

I saw the actual art exhibit when it came to the Kennedy Museum of Art, shown in one of the last few remaining Kirkbride asylums, The Ridges. It was a powerful, moving exhibit that paid such a powerful tribute to the not so long ago past of psycholo
Jan 14, 2015 Alicia rated it really liked it
What a beautifully inspired and rendered book that focuses less on asylums in general and more of the grandeur and beauty that they had when they were created but the beauty that still exists decades after they were abandoned. The images are stark and learning about the hows and purposes for their design, structure, and use made seeing the images epic.

It's also a connection to come across one of the oldest asylum's in the US as in the backyard of where you grew up (Utica, NY) with it's beautifu
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