Ethan McElroy travels the country documenting crumbling Victorian insane asylums, then posts their haunting pictures and stories at kirkbridebuildings.com. But he studies only those structures based on the theories of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809–1883), a Quaker humanitarian who regarded the insane as treatable sufferers rather than as public menaces. Kirkbride persuaded dozens of hospital administrators and architects to create secluded, freestanding asylums with long “batwing” wards flanking central offices to maximize staffs' observation opportunities and patients' access to fresh air and sunlight.
Credit: John Soares
Since 2002, amateur historian Ethan McElroy has been archiving photographs and stories of Kirkbride asylums, which were based on the theories of a 19th century doctor.
McElroy, 33, is a freelance web designer in Framingham, Mass. Two abandoned Kirkbride asylums near his home—in Danvers and Worcester—inspired him to start the site in 2002. “They're otherworldly places,” he explains. “I'm fascinated by their size and shapes, the dramatic scale, the quality of the architecture and craftsmanship, and Kirkbride's whole idea that a building could help cure people.”
On his travels, McElroy trains his Olympus C-8080 on the masonry exteriors, which are mostly turreted and studded with bay windows; he also accesses interiors (if they're not too dangerous), shooting dusty gurneys in corridors or paint peeling from carved woodwork. About 5,000 people visit his site each month, and McElroy receives up to 50 e-mails a week. “The most common are from people thinking I could get them a job at one of these places,” he says. “Some people want to tell me about their memories of working there or being incarcerated there. And some are just a little weird, asking about paranormal experiences I've had or tortures that might have happened at these places.”
McElroy hopes that sites like his will help inspire preservationists and developers to save more Kirkbrides. He admits, though, that “it's difficult to find new uses for the layouts.” Happily, McElroy reports that an asylum in Traverse City, Mich., has become the mixed-use Village at Grand Traverse Commons. But at least six buildings have been devastated by fire or razed. The Worcester asylum has been condemned, and only a small, turreted portion remains of the Danvers hospital, as the centerpiece of a rental-apartment complex called Avalon Danvers. Its street address: 1101 Kirkbride Drive.