Cathedrals of the Mind

What happened to asylum buildings after they closed?

Posted Jan 17, 2019

I spent some time recently in St Andrews, Scotland, which in addition to being home to an ancient university, boasts the ruins of a what would have been a magnificent cathedral. It still is majestic today, though it stands in ruins.  Sadly, during the Scottish Reformation, many Scottish cathedrals and abbeys were destroyed (Glasgow Cathedral is one of the few that survived intact).  St Andrews Cathedral was ransacked following a fiery speech by John Knox in 1559 (incidentally, David Tennant portrays the Protestant preacher in the new film Mary Queen of Scots).

Gazing up at its stone walls, golden in the morning sun, a thought occurred to me: How the heck did they destroy all these towering buildings half a millennia ago?  These things were huge and sturdy, with thick walls of stone.  It must have taken enormous physical effort, as well as a tremendous amount of willpower (and an excess of righteous anger), not to mention time, to demolish such impressive structures.

A few centuries after the Reformation a new type of imposing building was being constructed across Scotland and the rest of Britain: the asylum, a cathedral of the mind.  These buildings were also meant to inspire awe, not so much in God, but in the British state’s willingness to care for society’s most vulnerable.  Throughout the nineteenth century and during the first decades of the twentieth, grand asylums were built all over the world. 

One of my favorites is Gartloch Asylum, built in 1896 northwest of Glasgow to house the city’s pauper lunatics, people too poor to pay for a private asylum.  If you search for images of Gartloch, you cannot help but be impressed.  The two towers of its Main Administration Building rise up like church spires, towering over the landscape.  The vermillion and scarlet décor of the asylum’s ballroom also showcase the time, money, and effort put into its construction.  And this was an asylum built for the poor.  But much like the cathedrals and abbeys during the Reformation, Gartloch and the rest of the monoliths of the asylum era suffered an ignoble fate.

Beginning in the 1950s, most western countries were rejecting the asylum as the best place to treat mental illness.  Driven by dreams of community mental health care and fueled by emergent psychoactive drugs, asylums were soon being shut down.  But what of the buildings?  In his influential Watertower Speech of 1961, British Minister of Health Enoch Powell warned that this would be “a colossal undertaking, not so much in the new physical provision which it involves, as in the sheer inertia of mind and matter which it requires to be overcome. There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside—the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity—to express the notions of their day.”

But in many cases, the walls didn’t come down, literally at least.  While some asylums were demolished—sometimes to the delight of those who had criticized their very existence—others were converted for different uses, including being turned into apartments.  This was the ultimate fate of Gartloch, or at least most of it.  Shortly after being used for the BBC television series, Takin’ Over the Asylum, starring a much younger David Tennant, Gartloch was closed in 1996, exactly 100 years after it was built.  Part of it was transformed into housing, marketed un-ironically as “far from the maddening crowd” by the developer (although the website mentioned that the hospital had been used to treat soldiers during the First World War, no mention was made of its role as an asylum).  A number of the buildings, including its twin towers, have not been repurposed, and stand ghostly and forlorn behind fence to keep people out, rather than in.

I’m glad that some asylum buildings find new life, but I don’t think their former purpose should be ignored or forgotten.  Much like cathedrals, asylum buildings have stories to tell: tales about people who lived and worked there, but also about the priorities and ambitions of a particular time and place.  I doubt many of the buildings built today will evoke so much in 100 years time, let alone 500.


Kritsotaki, D, V. Long, and M. Smith (2016) Deinstitutionalisation and After: Post-War Psychiatry in the Western World. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

St Andrews Cathedral Source: Matthew Smith

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