Elgin State Hospital

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Elgin State Hospital
Established 1869
Construction Began 1870
Opened 1872
Demolished 1994 (Kirkbride)
Current Status Active
Building Style Kirkbride Plan
Architect(s) Stephen Vaughn Shipman
Location Elgin, IL
Architecture Style Italianate
Peak Patient Population 7,700 in 1955
Alternate Names
  • Northern Illinois Hospital for the Insane
  • Illinois Hospital for the Insane
  • South Elgin State Hospital
  • Elgin Mental Health Center


Early Years[edit]

On December 28,1869, the Board of Trustees met to examine the nine plans that had been submitted from various architects for the new asylum. The Board had enlisted the aid of two prominent superintendents to act as advisers. One was Dr. Andrew McFarland, M.D., the Superintendent of the state hospital in Jacksonville. The other was Dr. Richard J. Patterson, M.D., former superintendent of state hospitals in Indianapolis, Indiana and Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Interestingly, the building design of the Jacksonville hospital was largely based on that of the Indiana State Hospital, and is an example of the increasingly common practice of copying designs from one hospital for use at another.

The original name of the Elgin Mental Health Facility (its current name) was The Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane. The doors opened in 1872, however, construction of additional buildings continued until 1874. A rumor circulated for year, and still exists that the State of Illinois approached the City of Elgin with plans to construct a mental institution and a college and offered Elgin one or the other. As the rumor goes, Elgin took the mental institution, De Kalb took Northern Illinois University. As Elgin Historian and celebrated Elgin History author, Bill Briska points out the rumor, "...is totally false" He goes on to state that, "The state hospital was founded in 1869 and the college in 1892. (there are) No connection between the events".

The man-made lake was added in 1886. It was 400 by 500 feet in area and was designed to create a tranquil atmosphere for the patients and employees, as well as provide extra water for fire protection. The decision to construct the Annex Building was a milestone in many ways, not only for the Northern Hospital, but also for the Central and Southern Hospitals (located at Jacksonville and Anna) which erected identical buildings. It was also a milestone in the State's history of providing care for the mentally ill. The decision marked a major turning point in the debate over how large hospitals should be and what types of patients would be served. Within a short time, it would become the home of over 1,000 additional patients. It was closed in 1960 and razed in 1972 with the Kirkbride being torn down in 1994.

By 1896, the facility averaged more than one new patient and one discharge daily, up threefold from the 1880's rate. In 1896, the recovery rate was listed as 53% of admissions, the highest ever. Starting with a predictable daily routine, patients were awakened at 5 AM in summer and 5:30 AM in winter. Breakfast was served at 7 AM. Dinner, the main meal of the day, was served at noon. Supper was at 6 PM. Bedtime was 9 PM year round.

Since work was considered an important part of treatment, most patients participated in some form of it. In 1884 to 1886, about 63 percent of patients were engaged in some type of work related activity at one time or another during their stay. Men generally worked on the farm and maintained the grounds. A few were employed in the various workshops. Women were most frequently assigned to help in the kitchen, laundry, and sewing rooms. Both sexes engaged in "ward work," which consisted of cleaning and maintaining the living areas of the wards. Patients generally worked only a small portion the day. A very few patients were paid wages comparable to employees. For most patients, however, the work was uncompensated. In keeping with the prevalent attitudes of the day, the labor contributed by patients was seen as one means by which they could help cover the cost of their stay. Throughout the nineteenth century the purpose of work was clearly defined as therapeutic and not for the economic benefits of the hospital. Work was a means to combat idleness, instill values, and test a patient's ability to resume responsibility. It was one indicator of discharge readiness.

Superintendents became leery of a class of attendants they called "hospital tramps." The term tramps referred to the fact that employees moved from hospital to hospital seeking jobs as attendants. Their moves were often prompted by firings and disciplinary actions against them. Before the Civil Service Commission was established in 1908, state hospitals lacked a centralized personnel system to keep track of these undesirable individuals. Tramps further hid their identity by using assumed names. By the 1890's, many hospitals had established training programs for new employees. However, these varied widely in quality and scope.

20th Century[edit]

Under Dr. Whitman's administration, a 110 bed infirmary for female patients was erected. This building opened on December 11,1900. The women's infirmary was attached to the north wing of the Center Building and became known as "D North". The hospital's maximum bed capacity now reached 1210, although the actual census tended to be slightly less. The basement of the new building contained the long sought after morgue. The Center Building continued to undergo other transformations. The chapel was converted into dormitories for employees and the amusement hall was enlarged in size. By 1902, the hospital grounds included 25 detached buildings ranging from the Center Building and Annex to patient cottages, employee residences, farm buildings, workshops and several other structures such as an ice house, a bath house, and sheds.

In early fall 1908, two identical cottage buildings were completed and occupied by patients. Both buildings were intended for fifty patients. The buildings were two story brick cottages, designed in the relatively new architectural style known as the Prairie School. These were modestly scaled buildings but contained very large rooms. The sleeping quarters were open dormitory style with the dayroom making up most of the rest of the space. Unlike the Center Building, there were no private bedrooms, sitting rooms, parlors, small dining rooms or other areas to make the living space more homelike. The new buildings, while modest in overall size, were a forerunner of larger buildings that would follow with their cavernous dorms and dayrooms. The large dorms and dayrooms would sacrifice the privacy and individuality of patients for economy of construction and the potential to add extra beds if needed.

On June 1, 1912 work began on a new bakery and a morgue/laboratory. The original powerhouse, was attached to the rear of the Center Building. In 1916, a new powerhouse was constructed in a building detached from the Center Building; this provided for better fire protection. The powerhouse building is still in use today. The space vacated by the move allowed the kitchen to be rebuilt and expanded. The laundry was also moved from the Center Building to a free standing structure. Between 1912 and 1914, in the southeast corner of the campus, five new buildings were erected; four buildings were wards and the fifth was a dining hall. On May 1,1912, a new building opened to receive female admissions. Originally called the Women's Psychopathic Building, it became known as Dix Cottage, named for the nineteenth century reformer Dorthea Dix. The Dix Building was a two story structure designed with single and double rooms and semiprivate baths. One month after Dix opened, construction began on the Loewy Cottage, named after former Superintendent Dr. Arthur Loewy.

As the construction boom progressed from 1910 to 1917, left over building materials were often recycled by the hospital's tradesmen and their patient laborers. This resulted in the construction of new farm buildings and the remodeling of other structures for new or expanded use. One such project was the 1917 remodeling of the old powerhouse into a dormitory for women. Another was the demolition of the Burr conservatory and its replacement with another conservatory building in 1916.

After the war ended in 1918, the hospital's construction program resumed. Ultimately, the 1920's saw the hospital's most spectacular period of growth in terms of buildings, bed space, and acreage. The first major building erected was a new medical hospital. This building opened in 1921 and was equipped with a pharmacy, laboratories, an X-ray machine and a kitchen. There were two patient wards of 26 beds each, plus an additional nine rooms for sick employees. The building included a surgical suite. The state employed a surgeon who would travel from hospital to hospital. The new hospital building was a model of modern construction and accommodations. It had been designed by the state architect and used at other state hospitals.

Over the next two decades, scores of buildings were erected at Elgin State Hospital and other state institutions. Almost all of these buildings were designed by the state architect. The strategy was to develop a standard set of plans, therefore the buildings erected at Elgin State Hospital had a similar appearance to one another as well as to those at other state facilities. In addition to being a cost cutting measure, the intent was to give the grounds the look of a college campus.

The General Hospital opened in 1921 and was the first of several buildings designed in the Georgian architectural style. The building was a medical hospital equipped with X-ray machines, a surgical suite, its own kitchen, two wards for patients and nine rooms for sick employees. The grounds now consisted of nearly 40 major buildings. Interestingly, one patient who had been admitted in April of 1872 still remained.

In 1929, the Illinois State Psychopathic Institute relocated to the grounds of Elgin State. Ten new buildings were staffed and occupied by June 1932, and Dr. Read presided over 3779 patients in house, and a few hundred more on parole. Despite the Depression, improvements to the grounds continued, although the pace of construction slowed. Some of the work involved projects that were planned prior to the stock market crash. One such project was a new hospital building for veterans. This building replaced the small hospital attached to Wilson Cottage. The new building opened in January 1931 and was eventually named Halloran Cottage, after Dr. Roy C. Halloran, M.D., the first chief of military psychiatry for the United States government. The basic floor plan of the building was attributed to Dr. Hinton.

In September 1937, a new infirmary ward opened. The building was named Gahagan Cottage after the former superintendent. A new "E" shaped cottage opened on the north end of the grounds. This building was named Hawley Cottage after a former Assistant Superintendent. A major addition to the campus was the Christmas Day 1935 dedication of a new Assembly Hall. Superintendents as far back as the 1890's had been asking for a larger assembly hall. The original hall was constructed as part of the Center Building. Its seating capacity was based on a 450 bed hospital. Remodeling had enlarged the hall but, by 1935, the hospital's census was over 4300. Consequently, many large gatherings were held in an outdoor area behind the Center Building known as the Quadrangle. This area was paved over, and could seat up to one thousand. Movies, dances, receptions and concerts were regularly held in this space. Other uses included roller skating and bowling.

Elgin State Hospital's population had grown steadily with the addition of the new buildings. The census rose from 3172 in 1929, to 4433 in 1936, to 5253 in 1940. Despite the massive construction program, the hospital was seriously overcrowded on several wards by 1941.

By 1949, the census was 6,025. In 1955, the average daily census was 7,644, its peak number of patients. Through the years, the hospital was often involved with notable research in medical and behavioral advances and served as a training ground for many physicians and other disciplines as mental health services were coming of age. In the early 1950's, with the advent of major pharmacological treatment alternatives, the move to deinstitutionalize mental health services began and, by 1965, the hospital’s average daily bed census dropped to 5.

In 1975 the name was changed to Elgin Mental Health Center. Elgin’s average daily census dropped to 3,319 by Fiscal Year 1970. Throughout the 1970's, with the rapidly changing scientific, social, civil rights and political forces of the community mental health movement, the inpatient population was reduced further. Today only a handful of the older buildings have survived, mostly the "E" shaped cottages built in the 1930s.

The Kirkbride/Center Building[edit]

The Center Building was first advertised for construction bids in early 1870. The north wing was constructed first with occupancy in 1872. Construction on the center section and south wing was commenced soon after with a completion date of July 30, 1874. The December 28, 1869 report of the Medical Superintendent at the Northern Illinois Hospital states that Stephen Vaughan Shipman was selected from a field of nine architects interviewed by Drs. McFarland and Patterson. Later, in the third biennial Report in 1874, it was said of Col. S. V. Shipman that “...we believe this plan combines good taste, convenience, comfort and health, with economy.” The report goes on to say that “...we have found Col. Shipman a gentleman of ability, strict integrity and loyalty to the state, and a complete and competent master of his profession in designing and constructing insane asylums – his plan proving to be all we anticipated when it was adapted.” Before moving to Chicago, he designed the Central State Hospital for the insane, the old Dane County Courthouse and the American Exchange Bank in Madison. He also designed the Northern State Hospital for the Insane in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Bids were due from general contractors on April 16, 1870 for construction of the north wing of the Center Building. A bid of $124,000 from the W. F. Bushnell & Co. of Mendota was uncomfortably close to the $125,000 appropriated by the state legislature. The trustees of the Northern Illinois Hospital brought the situation to the attention of Illinois Governor John M. Palmer who gave the approval to proceed. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 severely hampered progress on the north wings. Its flames consumed the stock of John David & Company, subcontractor for the hospital heating plant. Reordering the equipment delayed admission of the first patients until April 3, 1872. Lack of heat did not postpone formal opening and inspection of the building, however, and the ceremony took place on an icy February 2, 1872.

Dr. Edwin A. Kilbourne, Superintendent of the new Northern Illinois Hospital, quickly set about convincing the legislature to appropriate funds for completion of the center and south wings of the building. He reported that the north wings could accommodate 182 patients, rather than the expected 150. Citing economy of scale, he argued that he could not begin classifying patients into proper treatment groups with less than half of his facility completed. Appropriations for completing the hospital building were approved, and bids were received for the center section and south wings on June 16, 1873. Two days later, a $206,000 contract for construction was awarded to Fish Stephens and Sorenson of Madison, Wisconsin. The contractor broke ground on July 1, 1873 and completed the massive building by July 30, 1874 – a period of just 13 months. The Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane, north, south and center sections, was finally complete at a total cost of $330,000. The legislature, however, while appropriating money for remaining construction, neglected to provide funds for the care of the additional residents. The newly-completed sections stood vacant until April 1, 1875. The dome over the central section held iron tanks which supplied water to the toilet and bathrooms of the entire Center Building.[1] The building was long and linear in nature which allowed for a high ratio of window to floor space. This represented a departure in style since most asylums tended to be smaller and quadrangular in design. The front facade of a Kirkbride building typically measured more than 700 feet long with some versions up to three times this length. The frontage of the Center Building was 1086 feet.

Each wing was divided into three or more sections which contained the individual wards. Despite the huge length of the building, each of the wards was relatively small in size, about 100 feet long and about 36 feet wide. A single ward typically housed about 10 to 25 patients, with the smaller numbers on the "noisy" units. Patient rooms were located on both sides of a central corridor, much like a hotel. There was a parlor area in the center of the ward. The parlor faced outdoors and included a large bay window. This allowed air and light to penetrate the center of each ward. Good air circulation was encouraged by the ample number of windows and the positioning of units in echelon fashion. Setting each ward back from its adjacent ward allowed the ends of the corridors to be open, via windows, to the outside; this allowed for cross ventilation.

The wards designated for noisy patients, who were more apt to be confined to their bed rooms, had rooms on only one side of the corridor. Kirkbride believed that in addition to the window in the room, these confined patients should be able to peer out the windows on the opposite side of the hallway, thus lessening the feeling of seclusion.

Another linear Kirkbride building, called the Annex, was added in 1891. The Annex was the last building of the congregate type to be constructed on the grounds. Future buildings for patients were to be separate cottages, designed to house 100 each. The Annex was demolished in the 1970's.

Images of Elgin State Hospital[edit]

Main Image Gallery: Elgin State Hospital


The mental health center opened Hillside Cemetery in 1933 to provide the facility's unclaimed dead a final resting place. Bodies were buried in simple wooden caskets often paid for by the state. When no family members showed up for burial, center staff often served as pallbearers or helped lower the caskets into the ground. No one has been buried in Hillside since the mid-1980s. The cemetery contains the graves of almost 1,000 patients. List of burials



The History of Elgin Mental Health Center: Evolution of a State Hospital, by William Briska