(Editor’s note: This is part four of an eight-part series, recognizing significant milestones over Evanston’s 150-year history.)
The Wyoming State Hospital was originally established as the Wyoming Insane Asylum by the Wyoming Territorial Legislature in 1886 (Wyoming become a state in 1890). The State Hospital site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, with a period of significance of 1887-1948.
The Wyoming State Insane Asylum has historic significance on several counts. First, the asylum has state significance, both as an institution for the care of the mentally ill and in the organization and architecture of its buildings. During the period of significance, the asylum reflected contemporary thinking about and trends in the treatment of mental illness.
Second, the asylum is significant to the state because, from its inception to the present, the institution has served the population of the entire state as its only institution for the treatment of the mentally ill.
In addition, several of the contributing structures on the campus were designed by distinguished Wyoming architect William Dubois.
Finally, the asylum has great significance on the local level, as it has been a dominant feature of the Evanston landscape — physically, socially and economically.
When the asylum was established, the idea of governmental responsibility for the care and treatment of the mentally ill was less than 50 years old. Prior to the 1840s the mentally ill were thought of as incurable and were housed in prison-like asylums. In the 1840s a new approach to the treatment of the mentally ill began to emerge.
Spearheading this “moral approach” to treatment was physician Thomas Kirkbridge of Pennsylvania. His approach to treatment was grounded in a belief that insanity was curable and therefore asylums should be planned and built as curative rather than custodial.
The chief features of the “Kirkbridge model” were: a country setting for the institution on at least 100 acres; buildings were to be constructed of stone or brick with a slate or metal roof and made fire proof; a maximum population of 250 patients; and centralized treatment, with staff and patients all housed in one building, arranged in a series of wings set back from the central unit, dividing male and female patients.
Kirkbridge places special emphasis on “pure fresh air” as a restorative element and insisted on a staff trained to treat patients with gentleness and compassion. His treatments also emphasized pleasant surroundings and intellectual amusements.
From the beginning, the Wyoming State Insane Asylum was seen as a place where the mentally ill could recover and be returned to their families and home communities.
When the asylum was established, it was on 160 acres overlooking the town, and it was set up so the land could be farmed to produce income to offset the facility’s expenses. Construction on the original building was started and completed in 1887. By the mid-1890s, the number of buildings on the campus began to grow as the patient population increased. The majority of the early buildings supported the farming component of the campus and included barns, a grainery and chicken coops.
In the mid-1890s, at the request of then Superintendent Dr. Solier, funds were made available to plant grass and trees around the campus.
In 1897, the asylum’s name was changed to the Wyoming State Hospital for the Insane because the term asylum was felt to reference more of a restraining or holding facility compared to a treatment facility.
In 1916, several hundred trees were planted to provide shade and wind breaks. Also that year, 2,300 yards of concrete road were installed.
In 1923, the institution underwent a third and final name change, becoming the Wyoming State Hospital. The superintendent’s reports from 1926 state that several concrete garages were built to accommodate the many employees who owned automobiles.
Construction came to a halt in the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s, following the completion of a 1935 federal public works project.
Very little is known about what took place on the campus between 1933 and 1950 because all of the biennial superintendent’s reports are missing.
In the post-WWII era, two trends in the treatment of the mentally ill affected the development of the campus. First was the rapid development and use of psychotropic drugs to control the symptoms and behavior of the mentally ill, reducing the need for long-term care in an institution.
The second was the emergence of community-based mental health care which relied on out-patient daycare facilities rather than the more expensive mental hospitals. Since the 1950s the hospital has seen a steady decline in patient populations, as is the trend across the country.
None of the last five buildings built during the period of significance were built to house patients.
The campus remains in remarkably good integrity as a complex, with only three of the original buildings related to patient care that were constructed during the period of significance being destroyed or razed. All other large historical buildings are intact and in their original configuration. In addition, a few of the farm outbuildings and utilitarian buildings also remain.