In July of 1856 thirty-six acres of an estate west of Portsmouth Village, previously owned by politician John Cartwright, were purchased by the United Province of Canada East and Canada West. The intended purpose of the land? To become the home of a future asylum, intended to house both the “criminally insane” of Kington Penitentiary and civilians, relieving the Toronto Lunatic Asylum from its persistent overcrowding problem. The first residents of this newly purchased property were not chosen from the nearby prison population but were instead a group of twenty some mentally ill women, who lived in refurbished stables on the property until approximately 1868.[i]
William Coverdale submitted a design and was chosen as the architect of this new asylum in 1858. He was chosen for both his numerous connections to Kingston (he worked on the design of Kingston Penitentiary and a number of local churches) and his progressive view of what an asylum should look like. Coverdale adhered to current ideas surrounding architectural elements that promoted healing, first put forward by Thomas Kirkbride in his book On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of the Hospital for the Insane, published in 1854.[ii] The finalized concept included twenty-two of the twenty-six potential aspects that promoted a maximal curative environment.[iii]
Coverdale designed a domineering stone building, four storeys high with connecting wings on either side-one for women, one for men.[iv] Instead of relying on the old system of communal sleeping wards, Coverdale enacted individual rooms, laid out in a dormitory style.[v] Each room included a window, and a view of the lake- as proximity to water was deemed beneficial in soothing “troubled minds”. The centre building contained dining rooms and a chapel, whereas pavilions at the end of each wing housed parlours, visiting rooms, and laundries. The site of the asylum itself was chosen for its curative properties- far enough away from the hustle and bustle of Kingston to provide an oasis for patients, yet close enough that staff and goods could be brought in from the city with ease. [vi] The asylum itself was built as far away from the road as possible, to shield patients from the curious eyes of passersby. The building also included elements that would satiate and soothe the public. The asylum with its imposing limestone walls and classical grandeur was designed to remind visitors of other important buildings in Kingston that allowed for society to function, such as City Hall and Frontenac County Court House. [vii] Under Coverdale’s supervision, a building was erected that calmed not only its patients, but a public that was uneasy with the idea of an asylum being built so close to their homes.
Work on the new asylum began in earnest in the fall of 1859, when groups of convicts travelled daily from the nearby penitentiary to complete the construction work.[viii] Limestone was also provided by the penitentiary, having been mined from its quarries. Patients were admitted beginning in 1862, as small sections of the building became completed. The facility was officially declared finished in 1870. The building was stunning and would become the subject of photographs and postcards alike in the coming years, serving as not only a home for the mentally ill, but a tourist landmark.
Although the exterior of the asylum and its grounds were picture perfect, life at Rockwood Asylum was not easy for the first people admitted to the facility. Untrained attendants would supervise the patients, oftentimes physically restraining them in filthy living conditions.[ix] Patients slept on straw beds and were not allowed to use knives and forks while eating. It would take the arrival of medical superintendent Dr. Wiliam Metcalf in 1878 for the asylum to implement more humane practices. Under the guidance of Dr. Metcalf and his successor Dr. C.K Clarke, Rockwood Asylum would see a great number of changes that would ultimately transform the nature of the institution, allowing it to better represent what Coverdale was striving for with his curative design two decades earlier.
About the Author : Victoria Bowen
Victoria Bowen is the 2019 Margaret Angus Research Fellow. Victoria recently finished her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University, and will be returning to Queen’s in the fall to begin her Master’s in Art History. This summer, Victoria will be developing a manuscript that examines Rockwood Asylum in the late nineteenth century, focusing on the impact gender had on the experiences of patients at the institution.
[i] Jennifer McKendry, “An Ideal Hospital for the Insane? Rockwood Lunatic Asylum, Kingston, Ontario”, Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada 18:1 (1993): 7.
[ii] Ibid, 6.
[iii] “On the Construction of Hospitals for the Insane” in Propositions and Resolutions of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, published by Order of the Association, Philadelphia (1876).
[iv] Danielle Terbenche, “‘Curative’ and ‘Custodial’: Benefits of Patient Treatment at the Asylum for the Insane, Kingston, 1878-1906” The Canadian Historical Review 86:1 (2005): 34.
[v] McKendry, 10.
[vi] Ibid, 11.
[vii] Ibid, 13.
[viii] Ibid, 7.
[ix] Karl Rainer Baehre, The Ill-Regulated Mind: A Study in the Making of Psychiatry in Ontario, 1830-1921, ProQuest Dissertations and Thesis (1985): 62.
Baehre, Karl Rainer. The Ill-Regulated Mind: A Study in the Making of Psychiatry in Ontario, 1830-1921. ProQuest Dissertations and Thesis (1985).
McKendry, Jennifer. “An Ideal Hospital for the Insane? Rockwood Lunatic Asylum, Kingston, Ontario” Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada 18:1 (1993): 4-17. Accessed May 03, 2019.
“On the Construction of Hospitals for the Insane” in Propositions and Resolutions of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane. Published by Order of the Association, Philadelphia (1876).
Terbenche, Danielle. “‘Curative’ and ‘Custodial’: Benefits of Patient Treatment at the Asylum for the Insane, Kingston, 1878-1906.” The Canadian Historical Review 86:1 (2005): 29-52. Accessed May 10, 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/can.2005.0091