Therapeutic Landscapes | Aaron Wunsch

Therapeutic Landscapes | Aaron Wunsch

Once one gets past the perversity of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” (1844), it is hard not to be impressed by his skills of observation. Ostensibly set in southern France, the story was written in Philadelphia and the method it purports to describe (or rather the one Tarr and Fether claim to have improved upon) bears an uncanny resemblance to the “moral treatment” employed in the city’s famed mental hospitals. Under the so-called “ ‘system of soothing,’ . . . all punishments were avoided . . . confinement was seldom resorted to . . . the patients, while secretly watched, were left much apparent liberty, and . . . most of them were permitted to roam about the house and grounds, in the ordinary apparel of persons of right mind.” By the time our narrator arrives, however, some of “the old usages” have returned. The asylum’s superintendent, Monsieur Maillard, refers obliquely to the “dangers of the soothing system” and adds: “We did everything that rational humanity could suggest. I am sorry that you could not have paid us a visit at an earlier period. . . .”1

Poe’s tale deftly encapsulates key themes in the histories of hospitals, prisons, and allied institutions analyzed by David Rothman, Michel Foucault, and others more than a generation ago.2 The renunciation of brute force in favor of (apparently) gentler means, the recourse to surveillance, and references to competing medico-scientific theories of human betterment all come to the fore. If only scholars were so incisive! Foucault surely cast the longest shadow in the historical literature on therapeutic institutions, but his legacy has been problematic. Reviewing Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison in 1978, Jan Goldstein found the work exciting but maddeningly diffuse and wondered how to reconcile “a history without significant actors, a history filled with disembodied sinister forces” with “the concrete and specific evidence that historians crave.”David Rothman, at least, could be pinned down. Writing about post-Revolutionary America, he told a story in which agents had names and historical specificity mattered. He turned our attention not only to key factors such as industrialization and urbanization but also to actual buildings and landscapes. And, in underscoring the broad and quasi-utopian roots of American asylums and penitentiaries, he left room for the more nuanced approach that contributors to this issue of Change Over Time continue to develop.

Surveying the essays presented here, the importance of home as an ideal type is unmistakable. It crops up in most of the essays and constitutes an intellectual thread that connects two centuries of architectural production. Or does it? Designs influenced by this ideal undergo a remarkable transformation. When Rothman discussed the house-like appearance and patriarchal management structure of early “caretaker institutions,” he envisioned sites like Philadelphia’s Lazaretto. Presented here by David Barnes, this building consists of a central administrative pavilion flanked by ward-like wings; in broad terms, it is the same inflated Georgian house that Dell Upton finds at the Friends Asylum. How different this structure is from Carla Yanni’s “cottages”—the units that defined residential life at women’s colleges and upscale asylums in the second half of the nineteenth century. Whether discouraging “unhealthy” sociability among female students or breaking up the miasmatic atmosphere of single-block hospitals, the “cottage system” bespeaks a more sentimental and cloistered conception of family. And perhaps this should come as no surprise. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, much of the reformist energy behind vast, centrally planned complexes like Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary effectively migrated elsewhere. It shows up again, downsized and feminized, in places like The American Woman’s Home (1869), where authors Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe devote whole chapters to such topics as “Scientific Domestic Ventilation,” “Domestic Exercise,” and “Habits of System and Order.” The instrumental domesticity outlined in such works dismantles the old-fashioned house of corrections and builds a dozen ivy-clad cottages on its site.4

A related though less-explored theme is gentility. The first space Poe’s narrator encounters is “a small and exceedingly neat parlor, containing among other indications of refined taste, many books, drawings, pots of flowers, and musical instruments.” As in one of the Beechers’ cottages, “A cheerful fire blazed upon the hearth.” The company (who turn out to be the patients) have pedigrees to match. Our guide observes: “They were, apparently, people of rank—certainly of high breeding—although their habiliments, I thought, were extravagantly rich. . . . I noticed that at least two-thirds of these guests were ladies.”5 This pleasing passage finds its real-life analog in a letter sent to a friend by Thomas Mendenhall in 1849, describing conditions at the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, where he had recently been appointed Assistant Physician: “This building is a perfect Palace and conducted in the most excellent [H11501] systematic manner[;] we have about 220 patients ma[n]y of whom are of the first families in the Union. . . . I enjoy myself finely[,] live like a prince[,] have a horse which costs me nothing [and] ride to town often. See pretty girls any afternoon [and] talk and laugh with the Insane Ladies.”6

Of course, such accouterments were by no means common to all therapeutic institutions. Found at Seven Sisters colleges and private mental hospitals, they were the antithesis of conditions inmates could expect at almshouses and prisons. But the ideals of discipline and efficiency cut across these disparate realms. Significantly, it is on seeing “so lavish, so wasteful an expenditure of the good things in life” that Poe’s narrator begins to suspect the presence of some underlying disorder.7 The Beecher sisters would have noticed much sooner.

The gentility that degenerates into depravity under Monsieur Maillard’s supervision was thought capable of exerting an improving influence under other conditions. When combined with the proper discipline, refined deportment and self-expression were central to the program of uplift that many mutual aid societies, mechanics’ libraries, and lyceums like Philadelphia’s Banneker Institute aspired to effect among their members.Luxury, however, was the ever-present threat behind any uplift campaign that succeeded too well. If homelike environments were to be the primary loci of social reproduction, Protestant morality and republican virtue were safeguards that needed to be woven into the very fabric of American domestic life. It is something of a leap to connect the Beechers’ home-life prescriptions to the intellectual currents beneath Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism and Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management but if those thinkers’ fixation on maximally efficient (re)production relates to the world of therapeutic institutions, it is not only through domestic economy but also through medicine—eugenics in part, but also the kinds of experiments in puériculture that Gina Greene describes below.9

These are serious and perplexing themes, close to the “sinister forces” that preoccupied Foucault. Must we then rely on his work to interpret the sites where such activities occurred? And must those same sites become fetishized objects within the budding economy of “dark tourism” that has itself become a fashionable object of academic study and historic preservation? These are questions our contributors largely avoid, and perhaps that is for the best. The search for answers could easily fill seats at a scholarly symposium and the pages of another issue of Change Over Time. At the same time, they are questions Christopher Payne’s beautiful, elegiac photographs put squarely before us, along with a host of others. Whose lives played out in these spaces and how do we honor and understand them? Is it enough to savor the sublimity of decaying institutional ruins, or should scholars and visitors do more? Here, we could again do worse than follow Poe’s example even if, in our search to understand these sprawling and foreign realms, we are more akin to his befuddled narrator. On first spotting the Maison de Santé around which the tale revolves, the latter notes:

It was a fantastic château, much dilapidated, and indeed scarcely tenantable through age and neglect. Its aspect inspired me with absolute dread, and, checking my horse, I half resolved to turn back. I soon, however, grew ashamed of my weakness and proceeded.10

The papers presented in this special issue of Change Over Time are the final result of a symposium held on April 9–10, 2015, at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, under the auspices of The Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. The event received financial and intellectual support from Penn’s Department of Landscape Architecture, School of Nursing, and Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing. In keeping with the interdisciplinary spirit of such an enterprise, the symposium’s call for papers placed as much emphasis on landscape as on architecture; the event’s title, retained in the name of this issue, suggests as much. However, with the exception of Theodore Eisenman’s article, most of the submissions skewed toward architecture. While pleased with the result, the event’s organizers believe landscape remains an underexplored dimension of historic therapeutic environments.11 We hope a subsequent scholarly gathering and publication will do them fuller justice.


1. Edgar Allan Poe, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, v. 3, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1978), 1004, 1005. With this tale and several others in mind, literary critic and historian Samuel Otter observes: “ ‘Philadelphia’ may circulate through the fiction [Poe] published in the city’s Graham’s Magazine between 1840 and 1845 . . .” See Otter, Philadelphia Stories: America’s Literature of Race and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 170.

2. The best-known of these works are Rothman’s The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston: Aldine de Gruyter, 1971), Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic: an Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), and his Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977).

3. Journal of Modern History 51, no. 1 (March 1979): 117.

4. A useful and concise discussion of Beecher’s and Stowe’s well-known book appears in Clifford Edward Clark, Jr., The American Family Home, 1800–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 33–34, 36.

5. Poe, Collected Works, 1004, 1007.

6. Dr. Thomas J. Mendenall to Dr. Thomas B. Williams, 4 October 1849, ALS, Library Company of Philadelphia. I am indebted to the Library Company’s Cornelia King for bringing this letter to my attention.

7. Poe, Collected Works, 1008.

8. This point comes through in Emma Jones Lapsansky, “ ‘Discipline to the Mind’: Philadelphia’s Banneker Institute, 1854–1872,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 117, nos. 1–2 (January–April 1993): 93–102.

9. The connection, however, is not as far-fetched as it might seem. See, for instance, Gwendolyn Wright, Moralism and the Model Home: Domestic Architecture and Cultural Conflict in Chicago, 1873–1913 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 272.

10. Poe, Collected Works, 1003.

11. A notable exception is Nancy Gerlach-Spriggs, Richard Enoch Kaufman, and Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Restorative Gardens: The Healing Landscape (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).