African-American and Women’s History to be Demolished at Austin State Hospital

by Evan R. Thompson, Executive Director

October 2, 2019

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Imagine a newly constructed 21st-century brain health facility at the historic Austin State Hospital (“ASH”) surrounded by grassy parks, pecan groves, and restored historic buildings built between 1860 and 1960 that are part of a National Register Historic District in the heart of Austin. The historic buildings house medical students, nonprofit offices and other services in support of the brand new facility nestled within a nationally significant cultural landscape.

Now imagine that half of those historic buildings, including the only two surviving structures on the ASH campus built for African-American patients (1936 African-American Women’s Dorm and 1952 African-American Dining Hall), are demolished to make room for the new building.  Imagine that the 1917 Laundry and Dormitory, the 1930 Mattress Factory and the 1937 Ice Plant are all demolished, too, while the 1899 Power Plant next door awaits future demolition.

On Thursday, October 3, 2019, officials from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services and Dell Medical School will celebrate a long-overdue groundbreaking for just such a new facility dedicated to 21st-century brain health at ASH. This is an important investment that Texans should be proud of, as the current patient facilities at ASH are embarrassingly out of date and reflect poorly on the high quality of service that the dedicated medical and mental health professionals at ASH thanklessly devote themselves to so that some of central Texas’ poorest and most mentally ill patients can be cared for.  For too long, mental health has been treated as a law enforcement issue, and this badly needed new facility will help reorient our understanding and treatment of mental health issues in a very positive way.

What is shameful to us is that the site selected for this new facility will result in the demolition of the 1936 African-American Women’s Dorm, the 1952 African-American Dining Hall, the 1917 Laundry and Dormitory, the 1930 Mattress Factory and the 1937 Ice Plant, all of which have been recognized by the Texas Historical Commission as eligible for inclusion in a National Register Historic District on the historic ASH campus.

The 1936 African-American Women’s Dorm is slated for demolition. The original 2-story open gallery at the front of the building was later infilled with windows.

Preservation Texas has conducted extensive research on the history of ASH’s buildings and shared this information with planning stakeholders. We conducted a well-attended tour of the  historic campus over a year ago when this project was still in the planning phase, and representatives of the planning team participated. Additionally, the Texas Historical Commission has urged that the historic resources of ASH be saved, but apart from requiring an archaeological survey to document what is left of the earlier African-American historic resources at ASH, there is little that the Commission can do to stop this senseless and wasteful destruction.

Founded in 1857 as the Texas State Lunatic Asylum and the oldest such continuously operating institution west of the Mississippi River, the facility opened in 1861 in a very grand limestone building constructed by enslaved laborers that still stands at the center of the campus.  The Asylum’s plan and purpose was very progressive for its era and the site was carefully selected to be near (but not in) the heart of Austin, with enough acreage to be self-sufficient.  In the years to come, ASH generated its own power, roasted its own coffee beans, made its own clothes and mattresses, and grew its own food.  For a time it even grew tobacco.  Its beautifully landscaped grounds were celebrated statewide. 

The Main Building was opened in 1861, and expanded numerous times. Until the 1890s, black women were inhumanely housed in the basement.

Patients — white and black — usually stayed at ASH for decades, often until they died.  Many of them were poor and forgotten by their families, and some patients were initially buried in a cemetery in front of the Main Building.  Later, the burials were moved to another site on the campus — no one knows exactly where — until a larger cemetery was laid out on 51st Street as the final resting place of many of ASH’s patients (mostly in unmarked graves), including John Neely Bryan (1810-1877), the founder of Dallas.  All of the patient records survive at ASH, awaiting proper cataloging, archival storage and digitization.

The Austin State Hospital Cemetery between 51st Street and North Loop is the final resting place of hundreds of former patients; most lie in unmarked graves.

The earliest black patients were housed in the basement of the Main Building.  In the 1870s, black men were moved to the hot, third floor of a new building shared with white male patients. Black women stayed in the basement.  By 1885, the Superintendent wrote to the Legislature that the mixing of black and white men in a shared building was “extremely distasteful to me, and, in my judgment, to a great majority of the people of Texas… [and I] recommend that separate accommodations be provided for the insane of the colored race at as early a date as is practicable.”

In 1888, with no funding having been provided for new quarters, the Superintendent reported on the condition of the black women in the basement: “We have no place to keep these [colored female] patients except in the basement of the old building. This place has none of the conveniences of other parts of the building. It is almost impossible to keep them from freezing in winter or burning up in summer. It is not a suitable place to keep any human being.”  A state legislative delegation led by a black legislator, Rep. Houston A. P. Bassett of Grimes County, reached the same conclusion. But nothing was done, and when no more black women could be fit into the basement, they were housed above an 1885 laundry building that burned in 1890.

By 1900, the Superintendent’s report noted that no appropriation had been made for many years to accommodate growing numbers of black patients. Funding was finally provided and in 1901 new buildings were constructed to house them; additions were made to them in 1910.  The location of these buildings, long since demolished, will be underneath the proposed new ASH facility but remain today as important archaeological sites in front of the old Dining Hall. Later, as legislative funding became sporadically available, additional facilities were constructed, including the 1936 Black Women’s Dormitory designed by Austin architects Page and Southerland.  Because all of the other buildings associated with women on the ASH campus have been demolished (several women’s buildings were located on the site of the current Central Market parking lot), the demolition of the 1936 Black Women’s Dormitory will erase the   historic architectural evidence of women from ASH forever. 

In 1952, a new African-American dining hall was opened for black patients.  The significance of the structure was reflected by the invitation extended to “all Negro citizens” to attend its official opening, which was intended to “honor Negro civic leaders who have assisted the hospital’s limited staff [to] carry on recreation and occupational therapy for patients.”  When this building is soon demolished to make way for the new ASH facility, the last surviving building built for African-Americans at ASH will be lost.

The 1952 African-American Dining Hall was the last building constructed for African-Americans at ASH.

In addition to erasing the history of women and African-Americans from the ASH campus, construction of the new facility will require the demolition of the 1917 Laundry and Dormitory, built during World War One.  When it was completed, the Laundry was celebrated as a nationally significant example of the ideal modern industrial laundry building.  It was also an important place of work for women in Austin during the early 20th-century, and sites such as these have been recognized elsewhere as significant evidence of women’s history.

The unrestored 1917 Laundry and Dormitory was celebrated nationally when it was constructed during World War One.

Other construction casualties will include the 1930 Mattress Factory, where a small number of patients made and cleaned mattresses and pillows for the thousands of other patients who once lived at ASH.  The 1937 Ice Plant, designed by Austin architect Hugo F. Kuehne, will also be demolished.  The loss of the Laundry, Mattress Factory and Ice Plant, and the anticipated future loss of the 1899 Power Plant, will completely erase the industrial history of the ASH campus and the entire western half of its potential historic district. Demolition of these buildings will also eliminate the opportunity to take advantage of 45% state and federal tax credits for historic preservation that could have been used to convert them into new and compatible uses; there are many examples of successful campus revitalization efforts elsewhere in the country.

The 1930 Mattress Factory employed patients in making and cleaning mattresses and pillows for the thousands of men and women who lived at ASH.

It is regrettable that of all of the places on the ASH campus that could have been chosen for the new facility, that a location was selected requiring the demolition of the only historic buildings that remain to acknowledge the complex and often terrible story of African-American and women’s mental health care at ASH.  Was this site chosen because it would be easier to justify demolition of historic buildings for a desperately needed new facility in order to save areas with more open space and less significant buildings for future private, for-profit commercial and residential redevelopment along Guadalupe Street and adjacent to the small lake behind Central Market?

The 1899 Power House, like all of the buildings proposed for demolition, could be rehabilitated using federal and state historic preservation tax credits.

As Texans we strongly support the construction of the new ASH facility so that it can continue to progress and serve the needs of the most vulnerable Central Texans.  But as Texans we regret the voluntary choice made by the site’s planners and stewards to demolish irreplaceable historic buildings on the ASH campus.  In 1883, a leading state newspaper editorialized: “it is certainly a shame and a stain on the record of any state to subject her insane to such humiliation as to contain them in the same asylum with negroes.”  In 2019, the demolition of these historic resources will be a different kind of shame and a stain on the record of our state.

TAKE ACTION! Sign our petition.  Contact your state legislator.