Dorothea Dix and Harrisburg State Hospital





Harrisburg State Hospital was the first insane asylum built in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania back in 1853, due to the efforts of advocate Dorothea Dix. Her petitions were successful and the first psychiatric hospital was founded in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania hospital was founded in 1845, and was originally named the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital and Union Asylum for the Insane.

Later the hospital would become known as Harrisburg State Hospital due to the change in climate surrounding state hospitals and the mentally ill. The psychiatric hospital facilities cared for the mentally ill for over 150 years until its recent closing in 2006. Today different state agencies are utilizing the buildings for office space.

With over 8,000 miles of land originally, the campus size facility has often been aptly deemed the “City on the Hill”. It was one of the first designed Kirkbride buildings, erected in modest neo-classical design and completed in 1851 by architect John Haviland.

The design was not considered a total success when cottage style designs became popular in the 19th century; thus, the original Kirkbride building on campus dissolved by the early 20th century, and new buildings were installed.

The Dorothea Dix Library and Museum located on the campus facility recently closed, along with patient relocation with the closing of the facility in 2006. The library and museum were founded in 1853 for the recreation and education of patients, and was erected in the women’s reading room.

Visitations were by appointment only for the public, and held various historical artifacts of the history of insane asylums. Some artifacts were sent to be cleaned, others to various historical institutions. When we visited, the original library and museum were empty and under renovation within the interior.

Overall, we found the 200 acre facility much like a large educational campus, and in quite good shape due to state agencies occupying the facilities for office space. Harrisburg state hospital carries a warmer sense about it with small cottages dotted along the huge acreage, and hiking paths along dense forest patches.

The 50 remaining empty and occupied buildings are in very good condition set in a country setting. Perhaps this state reflects the true legacy of Dorothea Dix vision for better conditions for the underprivileged mentally ill. Not comprehending the later travesties, Ms Dix foresaw a comfortable space for the underprivileged, who previous to this era only saw the likes of poverty and neglect within hospital walls.

(Old post from older site)


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