Architecture of an Asylum:
Recommended Books & Websites

This list was selected by Sarah Leavitt, curator of the exhibition Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths 1852–2017.


Carla Yanni, The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States (2007)
From Kirkbride buildings to cottages, a fascinating tour through America’s 19th century mental hospitals. Carla Yanni tells a compelling story of therapeutic design, from America’s earliest purpose-built institutions to the grandiose Kirkbride buildings that dominated asylum construction in the second half of the century. Generously illustrated, The Architecture of Madness is a look at the American medical establishment’s century-long preoccupation with therapeutic architecture as a means of curing social ills.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic (2009)
A deeply moving testament to the human side of mental illness, and of the narrow margin which so often separates the sane from the mad. It is a remarkable portrait, too, of the life of a psychiatric asylum—the sort of community in which, for better and for worse, hundreds of thousands of people lived out their lives. Darby Penney and Peter Stastny’s careful historical (almost archaeological) and biographical reconstructions give us unique insight into these lives which would otherwise be lost and, indeed, unimaginable to the rest of us.

Christopher Payne, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals (2009)
This book contains sadly beautiful photographs by Christopher Payne and a masterful essay by Oliver Sacks that reminds us that state hospitals were not always places of neglect and abuse but also of true asylum—of refuge from the stresses of life. The book presents us with a world of abandoned buildings, forgotten ashes, and derailed futures. It packs a powerful punch.

Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887)
Nellie Bly, posing as “Nellie Brown,” went undercover to investigate the deplorable conditions of insane asylums. Her memoirs of this event form the basis of Ten Days in a Mad-House, which forever changed the way the world looks at treatment and housing of the insane.

Nancy Tomes, The Art of Asylum-Keeping: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Origins of Modern Psychiatry (1994)
A social history of medical practice in a private 19th century asylum, the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in Philadelphia. It recreates everyday life in the asylum and explores its social, as well as its scientific, legitimation.

Thomas Otto, St. Elizabeths: A History (2013)
Created under the auspices of the U.S. General Services Administration, which owns St. Elizabeths, this document contains interesting stories and  many photos of the campus’ rich history.


Kirkbride Buildings
The work of amateur photographer/historian and web designer Ethan McElroy. It is an attempt to document remaining Kirkbride buildings in their current state before they are destroyed or transformed.

Asylum Projects
“The mission of this site is to archive both historical and current information on asylums across the United States and around the world.”

GSA/Department of Homeland Security at St. Elizabeths’ West Campus

Saint Elizabeths Hospital East Campus Historic Resource Survey (July 2011)

Nomination form for St. Elizabeths in the National Historic Register Program


Greystone Demolition

What Is the St. Elizabeths East Phase I Redevelopment All About?

Washington Post: Video diaries reveal life for those committed to St. Elizabeths


Curbed DC: St. Elizabeths East: A Photo Tour of D.C.’s Vacant Asylum

DCist: St. Elizabeths Stories: How The World’s Most Notorious Lobotomist Got His Start In D.C.

DCist: St. Elizabeths Stories: Turning the Lights Back On With Long-Forgotten Images