Establishing & constructing Pennsylvania's first public asylum

In the spring of 1845 the state legislature appointed a group of five men to a commission, their names were Jacob M. Halderman, Luther Reily, Hugh Campbell, Charles B. Trego, and Joseph Konigmacher. These five men were given the responsibility of establishing and constructing the first public asylum for the insane in Pennsylvania. They were instructed to select and purchase a tract of land no less than 100 acres, situated within ten miles of the city of Harrisburg, at a cost of no more than $10,000. Initially they were interested in a farm know as the Ridgway Farm just north of the city, but the purchase fell through. So in November the commissioners purchased the Sales Farm, a 130 acre tract of land that was about a mile north of the city. Once the land for the new hospital was secured the commissioners then traveled to Philadelphia to visit the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. The commissioners were given an extended tour of the hospital and grounds by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, there they gained "much valuable information with regard to the plan, arrangement, and internal economy of a well constructed building." Upon their return to Harrisburg the commissioners adopted a resolution that the state asylum would be a hospital of "Kirkbride-design".

The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane


Progress on the hospital was put on hold for about two years due to deficiencies in the original legislation. On April 25th of 1848 Aaron Bombaugh, John A. Weir, and James Fox were added to the commission. A month later, the now larger commission appointed architect Samuel Holman of Harrisburg to design and over see construction of the hospital. However only two months later the commission dropped Samuel Holman as the architect and instead adopted the plans and specifications furnished by John Haviland. Haviland's proposal estimated the construction of the hospital at a sum of $100,000. The switch appeared to of been based on Haviland's reputation and experience rather than any dissatisfaction with Samuel Holman. Holman would later build some of the out buildings, including the wash house and the carriage house. Dr Thomas Kirkbride, though not publicly involved with the commissioners, may of also had a hand in getting Haviland's (a fellow Quaker) plan adopted. John Haviland opened his practice in Philadelphia in 1816 and had several major structures in the city to his credit, including Eastern State Penitentiary and the Franklin Institute.

According to the 1845 legislature the new hospital building was to be "plain and substantial, with all modern improvements, to accommodate 250 patients." The new hospital was to be called the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital and Union Asylum for the Insane. However a later supplementary act of the 1848 legislature shortened the name of the hospital to the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital. In July of 1848 the commissioners went out to the farm and agreed upon the location of the building, marking it's corners with stakes. On October 18, 1848 architect John Haviland was paid $2,500 for the work he had completed to date. On April 7, 1849 the corner stone of the new hospital was laid by Governor Johnston. Haviland estimated that the building would be completed by November of 1850. However by the time the commissioners paid him a final installment of $55,800 in December of 1850, it became obvious that the hospital was not going to be completed by the January 1851 contract date. The commissioners threatened Haviland with legal action if the hospital was not completed by April. In March of 1851 the commissioners unanimously agreed that Haviland's provisions for heating the hospital were insufficient and they relinquished that part of the contact from him so that they could pursue other options. Eventually the heating provisions were awarded to Birkinbine and Trotter out of Philadelphia. Their contract for $12,200 was for the installation of heating apparatus, laundry, and steam pipes. They installed two 40 foot long boilers in a detached building behind the hospital. Steam produced by the boilers was piped to the Main Building through eight inch cast-iron pipes. From there it branched into "hot air chambers" under each of the building's wings, the heat then traveled though flues inside the building. The total system contained 16,000 feet of pipe. The construction of the hospital was completed on June 19, 1851 when Haviland turned over control of the building to the commissioners.

On the afternoon of February 14, 1851 a group of "Trustees", appointed by the governor, met at the Coverly's Hotel in Harrisburg. This group of nine men would be responsible for properly running the hospital. The hospital trustees included Luther Reily, M. D., Aaron Bombaugh, John K. Mitchell, M. D., Joseph Konigmacher, Jesse R. Burden, M. D., Hugh Campbell, M. D., W. W. Ruthford, M. D., E. W. Roberts, M. D., and Thomas S. Kirkbride, M. D. In the spring and summer of 1851, the newly appointed superintendent of the hospital, Dr. John Curwen, was over seeing the completion of the new building and getting it ready to receive it's first patients. Much of the furnishing for the hospital, such as bedding, clothing, utensils, and furniture came from Philadelphia. On October 1, 1851 the new Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital was opened and ready to receive patients.

Superintendent John Curwen

The new hospital consisted of one large building which housed all the patients and the administrative staff. This building became known as the Main Building. The Main Building was constructed following the "Kirkbride Plan", a building style set forth by Dr. Thomas S. Kirkbride who was the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in Philadelphia. The Main Building consisted of a center administration section with a set of "wings" extending in a linear direction on either side. The wing to the right of the administration section was designated for female patients and the left for male patients. The total length of the building was 680 feet, and there was no basement or cellar below the ground floor. The building's wings, which housed the patient wards were arranged so that the second wing receded twenty feet behind the first, and the third the same distance. The arrangement of the wings was to insure that the most fresh air and sunlight possible was allowed into the building. The administration section was four stories tall with a large Tuscan portico and a flight of twenty steps leading to the main entry doors. Topping off the administration section was a large dome from which you could see for miles in any direction. On the ground floor of the administration section were apartment for the steward and matron as well as a kitchen. On the second floor were offices and reception rooms for visitors. On the third floor were apartments for the superintendent and his family. The forth floor contained a chapel and six more bedrooms. The set of wings immediately adjoined to the administration section were three stories tall. The ground floor contained accommodations for hospital employees.

Ground Floor Blueprint


A lithograph image of the Main Building

The second and third floors were for patients and contained long corridors with rooms on either side. The second set of wings was also three stories tall and contained patient wards on all three floors. At the junction point between the first and second sets of wings was a fourth floor which contained an infirmary. Crowning the very top of the junctions, above the infirmary, was a tower which contained large storage tanks for fresh water. State appropriations for the third set of wings was not made until 1851, when completed in 1852 they were two stories tall and contained wards for 300 violent and noisy patients. Until the third set of wings was completed uncontrollable patients were not admitted to the hospital.

Eighty feet behind the administration section was a building for the bakery and the laundry. Located in cellar of this building were the boilers for heating the hospital and a room for storing up to 150 tons of coal. The hospital was lighted throughout with gas from the Harrisburg Gas Company.


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