The life and death of Dixmont State Hospital

The proper custody and treatment of the insane are now recognized as among the duties which every State owes its citizens; and as a consequence, structures for the special accommodation of those laboring under mental disease, provided at the general expense, ample in number, and under the supervision of the public authorities, will probably, before any long period, be found in every one of the United States.
On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane, 1854

In the rolling hills of Kilbuck Township, 20 miles west of downtown Pittsburgh, stands a monolithic brick structure overlooking the Ohio River, with a sweeping view of the nearby industry and the downtown Pittsburgh skyline. It has been situated high above bustling Route 65 and surrounded by over 400 acres of forest for nearly 150 years.

Western Pennsylvania Asylum for the Insane at Dixmont was founded and dedicated in 1859 by Dorothea Dix, a tireless advocate for the rights of the mentally ill. She hand-picked the 407-acre location and adopted a deliberate architecture and building layout popularized by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride known as The Kirkbride Plan. Kirkbride, president of the organization that later became the American Psychiatric Association, wrote a treatise on the design and construction of mental hospitals and the proper care of its patients in 1854. Dozens of similar buildings across the country share the Kirkbride signature “bat wing” layout and fortress-like presence. So-called Kirkbride buildings were, and still are, extremely impressive to the outside viewer. The Kirkbride in Weston, W.Va., for example, is thought to the be largest hand-cut stone building of any kind on the continent. Although some Kirkbrides are still in limited use, many of the hospitals are either demolished or abandoned.

Opened in 1862, the Dixmont Hospital was at one point home to over 1200 patients and an entire staff of doctors, nurses, barbers, dentists, and even bakers and butchers. As time wore on, however, the hospital was absorbed by the state of Pennsylvania and renamed Dixmont State Hospital. Funding became scarce and the institution found it harder and harder to properly care for its patients. In the years to follow, changing opinions on the care of the mentally ill and the illegalization of formerly accepted medical procedures, such as lobotomies and electroshock therapy, wrought the decline of Dixmont.

The Dixmont State Hospital officially closed its doors in 1984 and remained abandoned until its demolition last month. Although officially off-limits, curious explorers considered Dixmont a prime target. Its age, state of disrepair, and former life as an insane asylum were the perfect mix of intrigue and adventure. Most appealing was Reed Hall, the largest and oldest building, as well as the dining complex behind it. Reed Hall was a target for vandalism and thrill- seekers. Several Dixmont buildings have caught fire over the years, most recently a portion of Reed Hall in November 2005.

Other attractions for visitors included the morgue, ward rooms (many still with original beds and mattresses), and the high-ceilinged dining hall.

The 407-acre Dixmont plot was purchased in 1999 for $757,000 by a private individual — 75 of those acres were recently resold for an undisclosed amount to the Wal-Mart corporation for the construction of a Supercenter slated for opening later this year.

A local 400-member organization called Communities First! opposed the new Wal-Mart’s construction for some time due to traffic concerns, until their effort was squashed in August 2005 by the secretary of PennDOT. The main Dixmont buildings have been demolished. Reed Hall is now completely gone; the word “Supercenter” will soon grace its tombstone.