ST. LOUIS – A tour of the historic St. Louis County Lunatic Asylum takes visitors through the building’s 153 years of history. There are ghosts rumored to be in the building, but the tour guide, Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center associate director Felix Vincenz, said he has yet to experience ghostly activity.
The hospital, located at 5300 Arsenal Street, was founded in April 1869. At that time, the address was a part of St. Louis County and was surrounded by rolling grasslands. This is hard to believe now since the campus is home to the South City YMCA.
In 1869, the hospital had a farm on the property, a smoke stack that powered the main facility, and other buildings on campus. They also built a tunnel system to travel between buildings.
Vincenz said when the facility was first built, employees lived in cottages on campus.
“You couldn’t become a nurse in the St. Louis metropolitan region without doing a rotation at this facility,” said Vincenz. “That process pretty much continued through the 60s.”
He said they still have active training facilities in the old building. The smokestack was demolished when the new building was being built.
The hospital was the second psychiatric hospital west of the Mississippi after the first that opened in Fulton, Missouri in 1851.
The original hospital had a central dome with two wings that spread out from either side. One stretched to Sublette Avenue, and the other stretched to Brannon Avenue.
Vincenz started the walking tour by talking about the original building’s architecture.
William Rumbold, the same architect that constructed the old courthouse, designed the asylum. He used the Kirkbride Plan for the asylum, which often had various architectural styles but had a common “bat wing” style floor plan.
“The idea was that patients would be able to look out and see green space. They would have access to fresh air and sunshine,” Vincenz said.
He also said the multi-story design made it so the hospital could pack a lot of people in.
“The other central feature was a dome or a spire, and the reason for that was to provide ventilation,” Vincenz said. “Because this was before the era of central air. Multi-story buildings get quite warm in the middle of summer. They had to have a way to ventilate.”
The tour continued inside the building, where Vincenz paused in the lobby to speak more about the building process. He said, in 1869 it cost about $750,000 to construct.
“And this was the time when the average annual salary was somewhere between $150 and $200 a year,” said Vincenz.
According to inflation calculator, the total cost in 2021 would be around $16 million to build the building using updated materials.
The tour continued upstairs where staff would have slept. After walking up a flight of stairs, there were three brick rooms, and above these rooms was the dome. Some floors were not visited during this tour.
The tour ended in the basement library and concluded with a peek at one of the tunnels once used for staff and patients.
The building was going to be demolished, but it was saved by the St. Louis Historical Society. The historical society got together with Senator Paul Carter, the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time, he was able to keep the funds from being used to demolish the building. But they also weren’t used to restore the building either.
“Although I do this tour with a great deal of pride, and I do it often, I was actually in favor of the demolition of this building,” Vincenz said. “For the 60 years that this facility was essentially a warehouse, and people did not have a good experience here, [this building] represented the worst moment in behavioral health for so many people.”
He said, “this dome used to be a part of our logo, and it didn’t represent, for most people, what they wanted to think about when they wanted to think about respective, restorative, recovery, and reformed-based mental health care.”
The building and its dome might not have held many great memories for some, but it stands in the community as a historical landmark for others.
Vincenz expressed that the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center has come a long way since the 1800s. He hopes society can learn from this history and continue to improve mental health treatment.
The building is now home to office space and a training facility. The new St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center is on campus. The back of the building faces Brannon Avenue.
All around the campus, there are cottages where clients are allowed to stay. Some clients also stay in the new building.
Vincenz said around Halloween, he gets more requests for tours. To schedule one, contact the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center at 314-877-6500 or visit its website.