Asylum On The Hill: History Of A Healing Landscape

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On this edition of Conversations from Studio B, Doug McCabe talks with Katherine Ziff, author of Asylum on the Hill: History of a Healing Landscape.

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 book, 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.

Items relating to the former mental institution are being featured in displays arranged by Ohio University's Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections and the Athens County Historical Society.