Bryce Hospital

They're Coming to Take You Away

I recently received the documents from Bryce Hospital (the Alabama State Mental Hospital) regarding my maternal grandmother’s stay there. While she was only a patient for two weeks before she died of tuberculosis at age 36 while suffering from mental illness brought on by the disease,  it made me very sad to read of her time there. I can only hope that she received the compassion and care due everyone, but since it was in the 1940s, the records were not very detailed, handwritten, and some were difficult to read.

During this weekend’s visit to Gordo, Sandee and her mother, Gail, were kind enough to make a side trip to the Bryce campus, just off the UA campus. Many of the buildings are gone, some in disrepair, and some still being used. I think it’s a shame that the buildings weren’t put on a historical register and renovated, because the architecture, layout, and concepts were truly ahead of their time, especially since they were built for those who were often on the fringes of society and families.

The layout of the buildings and grounds were designed by the famous mid-1800s mental health advocate, Thomas Kirkbride. He believed that the mentally ill could be helped, or at least calmed, by beautiful, soothing and natural settings, both in buildings and the surrounding grounds. He layed out or influenced the layout of several mental health campuses across the country, with the “bat wing” layout of the main building as his trademark.

This photo above is of the main administration building, the oldest on the campus, and it is still in use. Fortunately for me, Mrs. House was an employee at Bryce for several years, and so she told me what the various buildings were used for. I took a photo of the building where my grandmother was received, and where she died, but it’s a much more ordinary looking photo.

I’d love to go back and take some really thought-out photos and possibly get permission to go inside the old buildings, but this weekend, because of patient privacy issues, I had to just snap photos as I could, most of them from inside the car.

It was an odd feeling, for the first time being at the place where she spent her last days. She’s the grandmother who I think I get most of my looks from, ( and so I feel some connection with her, even though my mom couldn’t remember much either since she was only 12 when her mother passed away. I can’t really even put my finger on how I felt as I stood taking photos in front of the building where she died. I was hoping for closure or something, but it was more of a melancholy feeling I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake when thinking of her.

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