Mar 16, 2012
By Tyler P. Esno
Many Ohio University students and Athens residents have heard the myths, legends, and horror stories about the former Athens Lunatic Asylum, located at The Ridges.
Those who venture up to The Ridges may even find themselves taken aback by the hospital's imposing architecture and barred windows. They may also wonder why anyone would put an insane asylum overlooking the river and university in the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio.
In her upcoming book, "Asylum on the Hill: History of a Healing Landscape," Ohio University alumnus Katherine Ziff cuts through the sensational fog surrounding the Athens mental institution to reveal its early history and purpose in late nineteenth-century Ohio.
Ziff's "Asylum on the Hill" tells the story of a genuine endeavor to provide mental care to southeastern Ohioans traumatized by the Civil War and struggling to make ends meet in a severe economic downturn.
Ziff recounts the mental institution's founding and early years of operation between 1874 and 1893 through the personal lives and experiences of Athens residents, patients and doctors. These stories
offer readers a glimpse at a time when judges and doctors had absolute authority to commit individuals to the hospital and Americans were dealing with the social tensions arising from industrialization and urbanization.
While serving the community's social needs, the asylum was also intended to heal individuals through compassionate care, calming landscapes, art, exercise, and personal attention. Through pleasing landscapes, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted's student, Herman Haerlin, the institution offered patients a retreat from the chaos and stress of life. At the same time, doctors held one-on-one sessions
with patients in which the committed could talk through their illnesses.
The book contains scores of stunning archival photographs that help readers reconstruct the asylum's beautiful landscapes, elegant halls, and soothing therapy sessions as well as separate, concise chapters
focusing on the institution's patients, architecture, and landscapes. In addition to covering the asylum's early years, Ziff delivers an epilogue tracing Ohio University's 1988 acquisition and subsequent renovation of The Ridges.
In an interview, Katherine Ziff stated, "Asylum on the Hill" is an extension of my doctoral research in counselor education at Ohio University," which her undergraduate and graduate work in sociology and public policy also shaped.
This book contains intriguing stories about the institution's early figures including patients like "the coal miner from Nelsonville who was committed to the asylum because he was trying to start a labor union" and politicians such as Athens state legislator William Parker Johnson whose "adroit political moves secure(d)" the asylum for Athens. Altogether, Ziff maintains that "to know the history of our asylum in Athens is to know the history of our community" since it "was the major employer" and is now the town's "parkland and playground."
Katherine Ziff's "Asylum on the Hill" is generating a lot of well-deserved attention in southeastern Ohio, and she has a full schedule of public events as a result.
To celebrate the release of "Asylum on the Hill," Ohio University Press is hosting a free public event with Katherine Ziff at The Kennedy Museum of Art, located at The Ridges, on Friday, March 30 from 5-7 p.m.
Items relating to the former mental institution will be featured in displays arranged by Ohio University's Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections and the Athens County Historical Society.
There will also be a self-guided tour of The Ridges from 3-5 p.m. in which visitors may look inside some of the institution's buildings while learning about their current use.
Tourists will be able to obtain a new map of The Ridges produced by Ohio University Press that complements "Asylum on the Hill." Copies of both the map (free) and "Asylum on the Hill" ($35) will be available at The Kennedy Museum of Art and Ohio University Press, also located at The Ridges.
For more information about the event, click here or email Jeff Kallet, Ohio University Press publicist, at Kallet@ohio.edu.