Thousands of Georgians were once imprisoned in the world’s largest mental institution, which was approved by the state in 1837 as an Asylum for Lunatics, Idiots and Epileptics. The deplorable conditions of the Milledgeville Asylum were notorious for practices of the time such as lobotomy and electroshock therapy, as well as primitive tactics such as metal cages, straitjackets, and forced sterilizations.
Almost 13,000 patients were served by only 48 doctors, some of whom were asylum patients themselves. In 2007, 42 suspicious deaths at the asylum, which was downsized and renamed Central State Hospital, prompted a US Department of Justice investigation, and by 2010, the state announced that most of the asylum would be closed for good.
But now, the state is demolishing three prominent buildings at Central State Hospital and erasing some of the brick and mortar testaments to the darker side of Georgia history. In July, Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order allowing the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to demolish the three main buildings located in what is known as Pecan Grove on campus: Walker, Green and Jones. The famous Powell Building, which was the original building, would remain intact.
The planned demolition has sparked an outcry from historians and local citizens, who are at odds with local authorities tasked with transforming the property and state agencies planning to demolish the buildings. Preservationists argue that the hospitals’ historical significance is too valuable to be destroyed.
Although there is no set date for demolition, talks about the future of the hospitals, which have been going on for more than 10 years, are still ongoing.
On Oct. 26, DBHDD sent an initial submission to the Georgia Department of Historic Preservation for a demolition consultation, according to Jennifer Dixon, director of the department. The state agency is expected to respond to the agency’s consultant by Nov. 22, and while it is not normally required to conduct site visits, it did conduct a site visit for the Central State Hospital property.
Back in 2010, the state established the Central State Administration for Reconstruction, which was tasked with creating an initiative to convert some buildings for jobs and tax revenue, which was eventually named Renaissance Park. The Redevelopment Authority has brokered several commercial deals for some of the buildings, but has not taken control of all of the buildings or the three that are currently in dispute.
The hospital’s unofficial historian and founder of the Friends of Central State Hospital, Edwin Atkins, said the rebranding of Renaissance Park was the first indication he can remember that the property would likely be ready for future demolition.
They want to get rid of the bad image of Central State Hospital, so they changed the name to Renaissance Park, revival, something new, and they want to get rid of all the old buildings, Atkins said.
The state had a contract with Baldwin County to provide fire services for the hospital, but conflicts over that agreement led the county to file a lawsuit against DBHDD in 2021.
If you’re going to look for a catalyst for the demolition, it would probably be the lawsuits Baldwin County filed against the state, Central State Hospital Redevelopment Authority President Johnny Grant said. Part of Baldwin County’s lawsuit related to deteriorating hospitals that posed a fire hazard and increased liability for the state.
A few years ago, Grant said, a Florida company also expressed interest in the property where the hospital is located. They eventually backed out because they didn’t have the money to demolish the buildings, a problem that would have made most projects on the Milledgeville property economically unfeasible, Grant said. If cleaned up, the space would be more attractive, less dangerous and better suited to finding some future purpose, he said.
Grant and Mike Couch, the previous executive director of the redevelopment authority, agree that the demolition allows for greater economic opportunities in Milledgeville. We did something that had never been done in the state of Georgia before by quantifying the value of real estate as something other than dollars. That becomes the value of jobs, the value of property tax incentives, Couch said.
Establishing a redevelopment authority allows property to be transferred from the state to the redevelopment authority for economic development purposes, Grant explained, noting that the redevelopment authority turned down an offer for much of the hospital’s property, including three buildings and many others, due to an inability to maintain them. or to deal with liability for buildings. Instead, the hospital property remained in the hands of the state.
Several controversies led to the demolition executive order. A year ago, asbestos removal at the hospital drew criticism after DBHDD, which did not receive demolition approval, characterized the work as a safety issue unrelated to the demolition. The Saporta report later reported that DBHDD had a list of buildings targeted for demolition after reviewing the contractor’s documentation.
The state began working on asbestos abatement a little more than a year ago, and at the time it was made clear that discussions were underway about how to reduce the real safety risks the property poses, said Ashley Fielding, the agency’s assistant commissioner for operations. with DBHDD.
The Saporta report also states that the DBHDD numbers for conservation costs were made after an undocumented phone call with an unnamed architect. Their open records request for all documents related to the demolition decision yielded no evidence of historic preservation alternatives or cost consultations. A DBHDD official later told the online news outlet that the preservation analysis was based on an undocumented phone call. Fielding told the Georgia Recorder that agency staff spoke with an architect who gave them some cost estimates.
They didn’t even have a name, so they didn’t have exact numbers on how much it would cost to save the building, Atkins said. This means that the governor did not have the correct one [amount] because when they got the governor to sign an executive order to take them down, I’m sure they told him those same amounts, which were totally false.
DBHDD officials say it’s not in the agency’s budget or purpose to save hospital buildings. Its nearly $1.6 billion budget is almost entirely dedicated to serving people with mental illness, substance use disorders and intellectual and developmental disabilities, Fielding said. Buildings also represent a liability for public safety.
Moving into these properties poses a significant risk to these people in terms of their safety and their lives, and as owners of these buildings, the state must protect against these very serious risks, Fielding added.
As talks between state officials and conservation advocates continue, the fate of Central State Hospital hangs in the balance.
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and others who oppose the demolition are asking the state for more time to find a way to save the buildings and to prove that the agency has made an honest preservation effort.
Ben Sutton, director of conservation at The Georgia Trust, noted that each of the buildings is a great example of a particular historic architecture that provides a much greater level of significance that would be lost if the individual buildings were demolished, and of course the importance of the Central State Hospital in the 19th century. and 20. history of Georgia and the United States.
It’s history that means different things to different people, Sutton said. But it’s important to remember that history and remember that part of Georgia’s history.
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