By Ramsey Nix Photograph by Ian Ference
From a distance, the dome atop the historic Powell Building is a beacon. It towers over a leafy green campus so quiet you can hear birds chirping. A closer inspection of the grounds at Central State Hospital, however, reveals a sad and disturbing picture. The fountain in front of the stately, white admissions building is dry, and the building itself, once the nerve center of the nation's largest mental health institution, is tarnished with black mildew. Many of the historic structures that dot the 1,750 acres of state-owned lush Georgia landscape are crumbling. They are largely boarded up and forbidden to visitors.
I don't know whether to call it irony, poetic justice, or fate, but Central State Hospital, an institution that once caged society's most neglected, is now a victim of societal neglect. Historic preservationists call it “benign neglect” and say that at this rate, the victims will be beyond repair in two to five years.
That gloomy prognosis explains why Central State landed on the Georgia Trust list of “Places in Peril” last year. That designation opened up a tenuous dialogue regarding the future of an institution that has been controversial since politicians chartered it in 1837. Its morbid history and state of decay begs the question, “Should Central State Hospital be saved?”
For many Georgians, Central State Hospital is a mysterious and frightening place. Located in the former state capital, Milledgeville became synonymous with “insane asylum” when the hospital's population vied with that of its hometown. By 1959, about 12,500 patients lived at the “Georgia State Sanitarium.”
Central State is mysterious because so much of its history remains unknown. There's only one book about it, a self-published history/diary by Peter Cranford, the hospital's first chief clinical psychologist from 1951-52. (He only lasted a year, because authorities disapproved of his historical research.) In the epilogue to his book, he wrote, “The hospital records on which the history is based have largely disappeared.”
As a result, rumors and legends have long filled that void, and the shuttering of the institution's oldest buildings could leave future generations with nothing but lore. “Supposedly the first patient came to us from Rome, Ga., chained to the back of a wagon and forced to walk,” says Mike Satterwhite, when he welcomes me outside the Powell Building.
In addition to his job as operations analyst, Satterwhite serves as Central State's genealogist and tour guide. Since the state shut down adult mental health services early last year after a Federal Justice Department investigation confirmed that “grave harm continues to occur at the state psychiatric hospitals,” operations have slowed. Satterwhite says Central State now only serves 512 developmentally disabled clients in addition to the approximately 175 mental health patients in the forensic unit and about 160 clients in Craig Nursing Center, the only state-run nursing home left in Georgia.
Satterwhite is a statistician, and he retrieves these numbers as easily as he slides cigarettes out of his pack of Pall Malls. “There are 1,751 full-time state employees left,” he says. “We used to have a lot more.”
To continue reading about the history and current state of Central State Hospital, pick up the latest issue of Lake Oconee Living magazine. It's hot off the press! You can find it on newsstands at the Morgan County Citizen office, Ingles, Madison Drug Store, Olde South Wine and Spirits, and Thrifty Mac.
Printed in the April 7, 2011 edition