The Ordinary Eye

Search this site:

The Commonspace

Jul 2002 / the ordinary eye :: email this story to a friend

And to Think That It Happened on Arsenal Street
By Gena M. Brady


She looked away from the sun as they drove her away. Her mind was blank now. Pain and confusion can cause a blankness that smoothes the skin.

There is a pile of ashes on the floor, at his fingertips smoke swirls unnoticed. Sometimes life runs too deep. Chemical reactions determine your fate.

High on a hill, looming over South St. Louis, the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center / St. Louis State Hospital sits silent. Located at 5400 Arsenal, the hospital first opened in 1869 as the St. Louis County Insane Asylum.

I had an opportunity to take a tour of the hospital a year ago. Although much-needed renovations have taken place in recent years, the top floors of the central structure and the cast iron dome interiors escaped these efforts.

Dry whispers crumble off the bricks.
Ladders lead to nowhere.
A broom smiles like hope, waiting patiently to sweep.

I found some souls still hanging from the warped wood of the spiral staircase. They are good at blending in so you have to catch them when they blink.

The dome holds together a tomb of stories untold. In 1869 St. Louis was in its "Golden Age." The Civil War had ended and the city was growing in all directions. Downtown was developing westward. Tower Grove Park was donated to the city by Henry Shaw. Cable car lines appeared. The County began to provide local care for the insane for the first time.

Back then the head doctor was a rich man who was smart enough to buy a certificate through the mail.

Back then if you kept quiet long enough you were cured. The doctor sat high in the center top of the dome. The main building is a five-story structure with four-story wings on each side terminated by five-story end pavilions. This was no arbitrary decision by the architect, William Rumbold. It was built this way for a reason. Mental illness back then was thought of as a social evil. The doctor was therefore thought of as a god-like being. As the patients made progress — remember progress meant controlling outbursts — they made their way through the wings, closer and closer to the good doctor.

Shhhh. Quiet. Silence is good.

Back then they kept the worst cases in the basement, known as "the dungeons." These were concrete cells, similar to livestock stalls. In these white cells, patients were chained to the walls. Trenches divided the cells from the corridor and were used to channel the water with which the patients were hosed down. The cells doubled as a toilet; the water in the trenches also carried the feces and urine that had been deposited on the cell floor. Scientific knowledge of psychiatric disorders was little to nothing in those days. No one knew what to do with the mentally ill, so insane asylums served more as prisons than rehabilitation treatment facilities.

There are a few vacant cells still remaining. Holes are still visible in the concrete where the chains hung.

The sun filters through the windows of the dome.

Legend has it that ghosts still haunt the boiler room.

Today, the state hospital building is home to the Missouri Department of Mental Health regional offices and the University of Missouri's Institute of Mental Health, which includes an extensive psychiatric library open to the public. A new building has been constructed on the site for the YMCA. One of the cupolas from another old building on the site can be seen at the City Museum.

If the disturbing descriptions of our city's history of mental healthcare have sparked some interest in you, there are volunteer and internship opportunities available. Contact Barb Anderson at 314-644-8243.

Click a thumbnail image below to view the larger version.


Gena Brady is a photographer who maintains the website

Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2002 The Commonspace