Milwaukee County Asylum

From Asylum Projects
Jump to: navigation, search
Milwaukee County Asylum
Construction Began 1878
Opened 1880
Demolished 1976
Current Status Demolished
Building Style Cottage Plan
Architect(s) E. Townsend Mix (picture design), Henry C. Koch building
Location Wauwatosa/Milwaukee, WI
Alternate Names
  • County Farm for Inebriates and Idiots
  • Milwaukee County Retreat for Weak and Feeble Minded Persons
  • Milwaukee County Asylum for the Chronic Insane


IMPORTANT NOTE: This was the second institution built for Milwaukee County at Wauwatosa. This institution was built to supplement the Milwaukee Insane Hospital, which was a semi-state institution and was separately administered.

Milwaukee's first mental hospital, known as the Milwaukee County Asylum for the Chronic Insane, opened in 1880 on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa. The state reimbursed the county $1.50 a week for every patient in its care. At the peak of institutionalization in the 1940s and '50s, Milwaukee County housed some 6,000 people with mental illness in several locations. Accommodations were anything but lavish, usually two to a room, sleeping on cots and sharing a sink. There was no psychiatry or meaningful therapy, said Bill Baker, who worked there as an internist. People were basically drugged and warehoused.

There were three wards at what we then called the Milwaukee County Infirmary when I, B. Hanson, worked in the Activity Department in the late 1970's; two wards for men and one for women. There were 60 residents to a ward. Their beds were about 4 feet apart, with a nightstand for personal effects.

The activities department was run by OT professionals. There were dexterity and mental projects provided to the residents, as well as field trips, walks outside, arts and crafts and basic education for them to keep busy. Teams of all the staff involved, from doctors to the janitor, met monthly to discuss each resident's situation in order to be aware of medical, social or behavioral issues. I remember a discussion with the doctors regarding too much anti-psychotic meds for a resident--I felt his tongue lolling might embarrass him on a bowling excursion in public. The meds were adjusted.

Residents were transferred to the old tuberculosis building, Muirdale, when the Infirmary was demolished. They then had the luxury of rooms with no more than three or fewer roommates, and sociability was enhanced. Muirdale also was more picturesque, with nice grounds for strolls. In the main, the residents were quiet, reserved, and often shy. Some had had electroshock treatments in the past. Many seemed to be there due to family issues far away in their past, and they had adapted to their constrained circumstances, such as they were.

The infirmary was torn down in the late 1970s and replaced with a parking lot. The Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex was built to replace it. Residents were transferred to the MCMHC when it was completed. The facilities were much more hospital-like and the OT Department was fully staffed, doing formal therapies as well as activities.

The former asylum stood on the grounds of what is now Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee and the asylum itself appears to have moved between several buildings on the grounds throughout the years. Many of the original buildings on the grounds were torn down to make way for the building of a Childrens Hospital in 1980. More information on the history of the asylum can also be found intertwined with the history of the Milwaukee County Home for Dependent Children that shared building space with the asylum for some time before the two separated. There has also been some confusion as pictures of the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy have been incorrectly tagged on the internet as being the old Milwaukee County asylum. Much of this confusion comes form the fact that some of the land and buildings on which the county ag school was built were once owned and used as part of the county poor farm, which at one time may have housed some of the asylum patients.

Photo History[edit]

This particular picture of the Milwaukee County Asylum is an etching and available on the standard Wikipedia page for the Milwaukee County asylum. It is noted that the design and building of the facility was actually awarded to someone other than the person who designed this picture. The Wikipedia article states a Koch was picked over the designer of the picture, E. Townsend Mix. Mr. Mix is famous for building a lot of facilities in the Wisconsin area, mostly in Milwaukee and surrounding towns, but the Koch suggested appears to be Henry C. Koch who was a contemporary of Mr. Mix and also a famous architect in the area. Henry Koch did some larger works in Milwaukee and in different parts of Iowa but is said to be most famous for his work on the Milwaukee city hall. I'll keep looking for a picture. The picture is of an early Kirkbride style design, but the actual facility that was later built was probably more in keeping with the Cottage design, with several additions created over the years to separate the "chronically insane" from the acute patients needing more short term care.

The Marr and Richards listed at the bottom of this etching is probably from the engraving company that made the engraving of this picture; However, there is also a Richard Marr that was an architect that worked on buildings in Michigan, including the historic Architects building at 415 Brainard St., in Detroit. Based on the date of this picture (c. 1886) it has been suggested it is not his work, as he built the Architecture Building in Detroit in 1924, well after this etching was thought to have been made.



Included within the grounds of the institution was a cemetery for the purpose of burying deceased patients who were not claimed by their families or whose families could not afford a burial. State law required that the cemetery be located at least 200 rods from an institution treating the insane. This cemetery is separate from the Milwaukee County Poor Farm cemetery. Persons buried in 47-BMI-174 are not recorded in the Poor Farm burial ledger. A sign now pays respect to those buried in Potter's Field and shares some of the history. From 1852 to 1974 Milwaukee County buried the mentally insane, the poor and the unknown at little cost. They were laid to rest in three plots of land and forgotten. Some estimate there are 7500 people in unmarked graves. Article about research of the cemetery