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Title:Landscape, madness, and state: The emerging insane asylum system of nineteenth-century New York State
Author(s):Thomas, Jennifer Lynn
Director of Research:Hays, David L
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Hays, David L
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Ruggles, D. Fairchild; Littlefield, Melissa M; Micale, Mark S
Department / Program:Landscape Architecture
Discipline:Landscape Architecture
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):insane asylum landscapes
state asylum
Andrew Jackson Downing
Frederick Law Olmsted
Calvert Vaux
Thomas Story Kirkbride
New York State history
nineteenth-century landscape architecture
nineteenth-century landscape history
American landscape history
asylum studies
history of medicine
history of psychiatry
Abstract:“Landscape, Madness, and State: The Emerging Insane Asylum System of Nineteenth-Century New York State” examines how landscape-based theories and design were essential contributing factors to the formation of a public insane asylum system in New York State during the long nineteenth century. Moral treatment, the Quaker-inspired psychiatric practice of the era, combined spiritual guidance, behavior modifications, and physical activity to administer patient healing. In that approach, farming, outdoor recreation, pleasure grounds, and exposure to rural landscape views were considered fundamental to patient therapy. Asylum doctors believed in the restorative power of nature and its ability to elevate the moral character of the troubled and the unwell, as well as of the lower classes, much like prominent nineteenth-century landscape and architectural designers did. Although asylum construction and care became a national trend within the United States as the country expanded, municipal, county, and state governments took primary responsibility for implementing such institutions. By studying the development of nineteenth-century psychiatry, landscape design, and architecture together at a state scale, significant ideological parallels emerge, becoming evident through the built environment and professional overlaps. This contained state-system was a response to broader social, racial, gender, and class concerns, reflecting regional as well as national trends within psychiatric medicine, landscape design, and architecture. Utilizing a host of primary archival sources coupled with secondary literature, this dissertation argues that those specialized disciplines participated in statecraft and were interdependent, striving to improve social ills and assert professional legitimacy, albeit by imperfect means. The connections between specific asylum sites and other civic landscape projects such as regional and city infrastructure, city parks, and rural cemeteries are emphasized here to show how New York State asylum landscapes were an important part of statecraft and the larger nineteenth-century American landscape design culture. The dissertation begins with a review of key studies of asylums and landscapes that have informed this work. In the following chapters, the chronology of the New York State asylum system unfolds in four phases. The first phase, early statehood, when New York was still finalizing its borders and state priorities, spans from 1788, when New York State ratified the U. S. Constitution, through the Federal period and to the 1830s. Land speculation, Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) land dispossession, and the Erie Canal are discussed in order to elucidate the significant landscape changes that would facilitate rapid settlement in central and western New York, where state asylums would subsequently be built. Had these developments unfolded differently, the asylum system itself would have developed differently. As the state continued to expand westward, establishing towns, markets, and governmental institutions was essential to the affairs of state, and asylums established an institutional presence that formalized state power through state care. Second, the formative, ad hoc phase of the antebellum years is examined, when the first New York state-funded institutions came into existence and designer Andrew Jackson Downing informed and influenced their landscapes. Third, as asylum facilities rose to prominence during the mid-nineteenth-century, American asylum design experienced a substantial shift in approach with standardization principles disseminated by Thomas Story Kirkbride, M.D., who rose to prominence in Philadelphia and became a national figure. During the same period, Frederick Law Olmsted was emerging as a major figure in landscape architecture, designing many large-scale projects—including asylum landscapes—with Calvert Vaux. Fourth, after the American Civil War (1861-1865), asylum construction and other state projects in New York increased considerably, as the state mental health system became formalized and the state authority expanded. Olmsted and Vaux had a significant impact on developments during that period. Landscape design and the formation of new institutions are considered together to convey a multiscalar synthesis of landscape-related measures occurring on and around asylum sites in the New York State system, providing a new state-scale, landscape design-based perspective to asylum studies while also enriching understanding of nineteenth-century American landscape studies.
Issue Date:2019-12-04
Rights Information:Copyright 2019, Jennifer L. Thomas
Date Available in IDEALS:2020-03-02
Date Deposited:2019-12

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