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The Condemned Asylum

Arizona’s Territorial Insane Asylum was built in Phoenix in 1886.

Arizona’s Territorial Insane Asylum was built in Phoenix in 1886.

In 1885, the Thirteenth Territorial Legislature appropriated $100,000 for a hospital to house the insane to be built in Phoenix.

This was a political trade off. The Capitol would remain in Prescott, the prison in Yuma, Tucson would get the university, Tempe would have the teachers’ college, and Phoenix would get the insane asylum. The 160- acre site was 2.5 miles east of Phoenix, bounded by Van Buren and Roosevelt between 24th and 28th streets.

Prior to the opening of the hospital, persons designated insane by county officials were sent to a hospital in Stockton, Calif.

The asylum’s cornerstone was laid March 13, 1886. It contained one copy of each of the 27 newspapers in the territory, lists of all important officials and legislators, a book, a copy of the financial conditions in Phoenix, a bottle of native wine and a cup, plus an 1886 dollar. The three-story complex featured one center administration building flanked by two wings to house patients. Brick was used in the construction; the roof was made of tin.

The project was in trouble fast.

A week after the cornerstone was placed, the original contractors were fired for financial improprieties and replaced. In April, the new contractor fell from the third story of the asylum into the basement.

Fortunately, a beam broke his fall and he escaped with only bruises.

The first week of May, territorial Gov. Conrad Zulick charged the asylum’s three-member board with “neglect of duty, official misconduct and incompetency.” The newspapers were filled with accusations. On June 7, a poem titled “Insane Board,” dedicated to the directors, was published.

The first verse read:

Appointed to a trusty place
Which should be filled with zeal and grace Who, squandered funds at rapid pace?
“Insane Board”

The gist of the charges was that the directors overpaid each other.

In June, a shooting occurred at the construction site. One workman fired three shots at a fellow laborer.

The building was finally completed Aug. 3, 1886, with The Arizona Gazette describing it as the “most extensive and most perfect building ever created in the territory.” The building cost $69,000 and had the capacity for 284 patients. On Jan. 14, 1887, the patients housed in Stockton were brought to Phoenix.

In those days, the emphasis was on custodial care of the patients and economic efficiency in administration. Actual treatment of the mentally ill came much later. Many of the patients committed were those with addictions to alcohol or drugs, for it wasn’t until 1899 that a prescription was required for the purchase of drugs.

In 1889, only three years after the completion of the facility, problems were mounting quickly.
The superintendent reported that a well had caved in, the cesspool had filled up, and the kitchen range was destroyed by chemicals in the water, since the range had to be kept hot at all times to keep the water pipes hot. By 1893, the foundation was sagging, the plaster was falling off the walls, the plumbing was horrible, and water poured through the roof.

In 1896, Dr. Henry Hughes became superintendent and produced a pamphlet announcing that all asylum employees had to be Arizonans, Democrats and musicians, for the asylum had the “best orchestra in the territory.” His only complaint about the building was that it lacked fire protection.

By 1909, the building was considered a hazardous place to house patients. It was structurally weak and was a firetrap. On Sept. 5, 1911, a fire started which practically destroyed the structure.

Luckily, there was no loss of life or injuries from the fire.

Using the original brick walls and brick foundation, the structure was rebuilt. All floors and stairways were made of concrete, but plumbing problems continued through 1941.

In 1962, the rebuilt building was torn down and replaced by an entirely new structure.

- Arizona Capitol Times archive. Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society, Phoenix.

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