While there were “amazing shots everywhere I looked,” Payne says, his main goal was to find images that evoked the sense of the patients’ lives in these vanished worlds. “At the end of the day, I wanted each photograph to tell a story about the lives lived there. Each photograph should be able to stand on its own as an art shot but also be unique and reference all the other hospitals.”

He was a bit surprised at how accommodating officials were, allowing him access and even putting him up in dormitories. As it turned out, many staffers were eager to tell the stories of their institutions, seeing the book as an opportunity to counter the popular image of such hospitals as the brutal, overcrowded “snakepits” of popular culture.

“It’s not politically correct now, but the idea in fact of a place of refuge where people could go just to be crazy—at their best, they worked really well,” he says. “This is something I heard from a lot of people I talked to who worked there their whole lives. I didn’t hear all the bad stories.”

Even in their worst years of overcrowding and decline in the 1950s, patients could still be found “working in the shops, or bowling, or performing in a play,” he says. “You had good wards and bad wards, and buildings that were in good shape and vice versa.” Despite undoubted abuses, “at their core [these institutions] were set up with good intentions and certainly [state governments] would not have invested this much money in architectural infrastructure if they were just supposed to be warehouses.”

Payne admits that, for many of these structures, historic preservation is a hard sell. Their sheer size, deteriorated condition, and often remote locations all militate against their conversion to other uses. Not to mention the negative connotations associated with mental illness.

“It’s hard for the public to get past the fact that these were asylums and that horrible things happened in them,” he says. “That’s what we’ve been brought up to believe, and these gothic-looking castles reinforce that, when in fact there are other institutional buildings from the same period that look the same—they could be resort hotels, for instance, but they don’t have the same stigma.”

In an afterword, Payne focuses in on Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, which was largely demolished for a condominium project on what had become prime real estate. A series of photographs in the book documents the destruction. “They saved the center core, but once you tear down the wings the building loses its sense of scale, and once you tear down all the trees that have grown up with the building, it lacks any sort of context and loses its historic integrity,” he says.

“I hesitated to tell the site manager how disturbing it was to watch this happen, since he represented the developer’s interests,” Payne writes. “But as we spoke, he echoed the same sense of loss I felt and added soberly: ‘When I first saw this place, I fell in love with it. Now without the building, it’s just a place, like any other.’”


Mar|Apr 2010 contents
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Architecture of Madness by John Prendergast
Photography by Chris Payne GAr’96

Unclaimed copper cremation urns, Oregon State Hospital; patient suitcases in ward attic, Bolivar State Hospital.

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Last modified 2/23/10