Hidden Oklahoma: Norman hospital once a ‘mythical city'

BY DAVID ZIZZO dzizzo@opubco.com
Published: March 13, 2011

Follow Main Street east out of town, and it would end at the gates. Beyond the gates were a bakery, a cannery and a dairy farm.


And chicken houses, a hog farm, a laundry, an ice plant, a power plant and, according to a 1937 state Planning Board property map, even orchards and a vineyard. Pretty much everything the thousands of people who lived here needed.

“It was a mini-city,” said Durand Crosby, chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Today, much of the sprawling complex a reporter once described as a “mythical city” has disappeared or been absorbed or blended into the city that grew up around it. Still, the remaining cluster of buildings now known as Griffin Memorial Hospital remains a hub of services provided by the Mental Health Department.

South of the hospital's main campus acres of vegetables once grew. “The patients actually worked on the farm,” Crosby said. “It was considered part of their treatment.”

Today, those fields are slowly being filled in with modern outpatient facilities for counseling and therapy.

Numerous structures, landscape features and remnants remain from the long history of the mental facility, however, including a large abandoned chapel and a superintendent's residence. One of the largest structures is Hope Hall, a now mostly-empty 100,000-square-foot brick building built around 1930. Ornate rusting bars enclose balconies suspended by tall white columns where secure wards once were.

To the north, where soccer fields and baseball diamonds now occupy original hospital land, stands a complex of silos. “That was part of this farming complex,” Crosby said.

Beyond that, also on state-owned hospital land now leased to the city of Norman for $1 a year, is a wilderness area, the centerpiece of which is a pond still bearing catfish first introduced there as a food source for the hospital.

“People go there and fish,” Jeff Dismukes, Mental Health Department spokesman, said.

At the northeast corner of the property is Central State Hospital Rock Creek Road Cemetery, with rows of small concrete pads marking graves of many patients. In another nearby cemetery is a communal grave containing remains of 36 of the 37 people who died in a fire at the hospital in 1918, according to news reports of the time, but the grave has yet to be located.

The first structure on the hospital site actually was a school for women opened in the late 1800s. High Gate Academy couldn't compete with the nearby University of Oklahoma, and in 1895 it was sold to the Oklahoma Sanitarium Co. Mental patients who until that time had been sent by train to a facility in Illinois could now be treated at the Norman institution “for violent insane,” as a description on the facility's front gate stated.

In 1899, sanitarium officials hired David W. Griffin, a psychiatrist from North Carolina. “He saw that the word ‘insane' was on the gates, and he personally chiseled that word off,” Crosby said.

Griffin would become superintendent in 1902, a position he would hold until 1950. The sanitarium was sold to the fledgling state of Oklahoma, and in 1915, the legislative “Lunacy Bill” created several state asylums, including facilities at Fort Supply, Vinita and Norman. The Norman site became known as Central State Hospital, although numerous accounts still referred to it as “Central State Hospital for the insane.”

Patient populations at the Norman hospital grew, reaching 3,000 in the 1950s. At times, conditions reported there, as at many similar institutions of the era, were grim, with overcrowding, inadequate heating and cooling and use of electric and insulin shock therapy, sterilizations, lobotomies and other approaches now considered inhumane. Patients might remain there for months or years.

Beginning in the 1960s, medical approaches to treating the mentally ill evolved, and laws and standards of care with them. “Deinstitutionalization” began to wind down the era of huge residential mental facilities, taking much of the expansive Central State Griffin Memorial Hospital, as it was renamed in 1953, with it.

By 1990, only 245 patients remained at Griffin Memorial, which no longer needed the comprehensive and self-sustaining infrastructure it once had. Today, Griffin's patient capacity is only 120, and stays are measured in weeks or days.


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