It began operation on January 9, 1874. Within two years of its opening, The hospital was renamed The Athens Hospital for the Insane. Later, the hospital would be called the Athens Asylum for the Insane, the Athens State Hospital, the Southeastern Ohio Mental Health Center, the Athens Mental Health Center, the Athens Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center, the Athens Mental Health and Developmental Center, and then (again) the Athens Mental Health Center. The facility also included divisions such as the Dairy Barn, Beacon School, Athens Receiving Hospital, Center Hospital and the Tubercular Ward (Cottage "B").
The land where the hospital was built belonged to Arthur Coates and Eliakim H. Moore farms. The area originally was only made up of 141 acres (57 ha) and over the years, quickly grew to over 1,000 acres (400 ha) of land. The idea to build an asylum came up shortly after the Civil War.
The original hospital was in operation from 1874 to 1993. Although not a self-sustaining facility, for many years the hospital had livestock, farm fields and gardens, an orchard, greenhouses, a dairy, a physical plant to generate steam heat, and even a carriage shop in the earlier years. The architect for the original building was Levi T. Scofield of Cleveland. Construction of the facility began on November 5, 1868 and the hospital opened on January 9, 1874. Based on the Kirkbride plan, the main building was to include an administration building and two wings that included three sections. The males were housed in the left wards and females in the right. They each had their own specific dining halls. There was room to house 572 patients in the main building, almost double of what Kirkbride had recommended. The building itself was 853 feet long and 60 feet in width. Also built onto the main building in the back were a laundry room and a boiler house. Seven cottages were constructed to house even more patients. They could hold less capacity than the wards, but they grouped patients in dormitory-like rooms. By the 1950s the hospital sat on well over 1,000 acres, was using 78 buildings and was treating 1,800 patients.
The designs of the buildings and grounds were influenced by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a 19th-century physician who authored an influential treatise on hospital design called, On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane. Kirkbride buildings are most recognizably characterized by their "bat wing" floor plan and often lavish Victorian-era architecture.
The hospital grounds were designed by Herman Haerlin of Cincinnati. Some of Haerlin's other landscape designs are seen in Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery and the Oval on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus. The Athens State Hospital records, show total square footage of the facility was recorded at 660,888 sq. ft circa 1960.
For many years, the hospital was Athens, Ohio's largest employer. A large percentage of the work it took to maintain the facility was carried out by the patients. Doctors and physicians believed this was not only therapeutic for patients, but it was also free to the hospital itself. By the end of the 1950s, however, the treatments that had been used for years altered to drugs and made it difficult for patients to execute their jobs. The hospital was eventually decommissioned and in a land swap between the Department of Mental Health and Ohio University, the hospital's property was deeded to Ohio University. Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare, Athens Campus (as Southeast Psychiatric Hospital was renamed), still serves as a psychiatric hospital in Athens. With the original Athens Lunatic Asylum situated on a hill south of the Hocking River and the newer hospital on the north bank of the river, the two facilities are still within sight of each other.
The history of the hospital documents some of the now-discredited theories of the causes of mental illness, as well as the practice of harmful treatments, such as lobotomy. The Ohio University archives collection contains records unfolding information regarding employees’ background training. Some were fully trained and some not trained at all. Some lived on the grounds and some did not. The most shocking information within the employee records is the evidence and documentation of hydrotherapy, electroshock, lobotomy, and psychotropic drugs, some of which have been discredited today as extremely inhumane ways of treating a patient. The leading cause of insanity among the male patients was masturbation, according to the annual report of 1876. The second-most common cause of insanity, as recorded in the first annual report, was intemperance and dissipation. In the hospital's first three years of operation, eighty-one men and one woman were diagnosed as having their insanity caused by masturbation. Fifty-six men and one woman were diagnosed as having their insanity caused by intemperance and dissipation during this same period of time.
For the female patients hospitalized during these first three years of the asylum's operation, the three leading causes of insanity are recorded as "puerperal condition" (51 women), "change of life" (32 women), and "menstrual derangements" (29 women).
Epilepsy was also considered a major cause of insanity and reason for admission to the hospital in the early years. The first annual report lists thirty-one men and nineteen women as having their insanity caused by epilepsy. General "ill health" accounted for the admission of thirty-nine men and forty-four women in the first three years of the hospital's operation.
Overall, common ailments faced today such as epilepsy, menopause, alcohol addiction and tuberculosis were cause for enrollment in the hospital.
The hospital closed in 1993. However, the institution of the state hospital continued to function in Athens, with patients and staff relocating to a newly constructed facility which, at the time of the transition in 1993, was called the Southeast Psychiatric Hospital. The psychiatric hospital in Athens is now named Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare.
The Athens Lunatic Asylum served Adams, Athens, Gallia, Highland, Hocking, Jackson, Lawrence, Meigs, Morgan, Perry, Pike, Ross, Scioto, Vinton and Washington counties. The land was purchased from Coates farm who had originally owned the land for over six years before the hospital was built. With a total of 1,019 acres (412 ha), the land consisted of five different types of land: cultivated (344 acres (139 ha)), wooded (274 acres (111 ha)), pasture (299 acres (121 ha)), campused (100 acres (40 ha)) and recreation (2 acres (0.81 ha)). Although not a self-sustaining facility, for many years the hospital had livestock, farm fields and gardens, an orchard, greenhouses, a dairy, a physical plant to generate steam heat, and even a carriage shop in the earlier years. The architect for the original building was Levi T. Scofield of Cleveland. Based on the Kirkbride plan, the main building was to include an administration building and two wings that included three sections. The males were housed in the left wards and females in the right. They each had their own specific dining halls. There was room to house 572 patients in the main building, almost double of what Kirkbride had recommended. This overpopulating of the facility lead to conflicts between the patients. The building itself was 853 feet long and 60 feet in width. Also built onto the main building in the back were a laundry room and a boiler house. Seven cottages were constructed to house even more patients. They could hold less capacity than the wards, but they grouped patients in dormitory-like styles. The designs of the buildings and grounds were influenced by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a 19th-century physician who authored an influential treatise on hospital design called On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane. Kirkbride buildings are most recognizably characterized by their "bat wing" floor plan and often lavish Victorian-era architecture. The hospital grounds were designed by Herman Haerlin of Cincinnati. Some of Haerlin's other landscape designs are seen in Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery and the Oval on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus. The original Athens Lunatic Asylum was situated on a hill south of the Hocking River. The Athens Mental Hospital grounds was built on the top of a hillside in the late 1860s, and is completely stable due to its position atop the hill rather than on a slope.
Utilities The water came from institution wells, each with 1050 G.P.M capacity. The electricity came from institution plants, with two steam turbo-generators holding 700 KW each. The sewerage came from the city of Athens facilities and the heat came from institution plants with coal-fired boilers.
Administration Building Construction began in 1868, completed in 1875. 60,000 total sq feet. 4 floors. Basement and attic. 95 total rooms. Present use: administration. Conditions: fair and good. Cost to replace: $903,000. Present value: $285,400.
Farm Office Building Year completed: 1900. 600 total sq feet. 1 floor. 2 rooms. Present use: administration. Condition: good. Cost to replace: $3,000. Present Value: $1,900.
Amusement Hall Year completed: 1900. 7,163 total sq feet. 2 floors. 3 rooms. Present use: recreation. Condition: good. Cost to replace: $93,100. Present value: $32,700.
Male Wards Year completed: 1873. 76,501 total sq feet. 3-4 floors. Basement and attic. 265 rooms. Present use: residence. Condition: fair. Cost to replace: $1,228,800. Present Value: $486,900.
Female Wards Year completed: 1873. 96,343 total sq feet. 3-4 floors. Basement and attic. 351 rooms. Present use: 351. Condition: Good – fair. Cost to replace: $1,541,500. Present value: $610,700.
Physicians Units Year completed: 1951. 2,322 total sq feet each. 2 floors. Basement. 12 rooms each. Present use: residence. Condition: good. Cost to replace: $43,500 each. Present value: $34,500 each.
Farms Manager Residence Year completed: 1885. 840 total sq feet. 1 floor. Partial basement and attic. 5 rooms. Present use: residence. Condition: good. Cost to replace: $5,500. Present Value: $2,700.
Female Dining Hall Year completed: 1905. 800 total sq feet. 1 floor. Basement. 1 room. Present use: maintenance. Condition: poor. Cost to replace: $10,400. Present value: $1,300.
Male Dining Hall Year completed: 1888. 27,232 total sq feet. 2 floors. Basement and attic. 36 rooms. Present use: food service. Condition: good. Cost to replace: $367,600. Present value: $80,400.
Laundry Building Year completed: 1956. 17,284 total sq feet. 1 floor. Basement. 10 rooms. Present use: laundry services. Cost to replace: $172,800. Present value: $147,800.
Power Plant Year completed: 1951. 16,526 total sq feet. 2 floors. Partial basement. Present use: heating and electricity. Condition: good. Cost to replace: $544,000. Present value: $445,500.
Myths and mystery surround a well-known site in southern Ohio, The Athens Lunatic Asylum. The mystery is fueled, perhaps, because the public cannot access a majority of the information about patients who were treated and lived at the asylum. With special permission and filling out paperwork that is required by the state of Ohio, some of the information can be accessed, however, those interested in finding out about the patients that walked through the doors of the Asylum can satisfy their curiosity by looking to the cemeteries.
"There are 1,930 people buried at the three cemeteries located at the Ridges. Of those, 700 women and 959 men lay under the headstones marked only with a number." There were some patients who had died that were reunited with their families and buried in cemeteries around their homes. By 1943, the State of Ohio began putting names, births, and deaths, on the markers of the patients who died. (Friends of Asylum, McCabe)It is unknown as to why the state switched from using only numbers to using names in order to verify who the deceased were, but this practice remained constant through the remainder of time that patients were buried up at the asylum. Although the newer stones had names, births, and deaths, the older stones that remained had not been replaced until recently.
By the 1980s the state no longer took care of the cemeteries which made it easy for outsiders to vandalize them. Natural occurrences also caused damage. The stones marking where patients were buried were in desperate need of repair. They were left to the elements and “hundreds of stones were left uprooted and broken.” Beginning in 2000, the Athens, Ohio chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) started the reclamation for the cemeteries, taking on the work that was once the responsibility of the Ohio Department of Mental Health.” NAMI, Athens worked to help restore the cemeteries at the Asylum to its original state. The organization got “involved with other groups and organizations in a major effort to restore, beautify and demystify the three mental health grave yards located on the grounds of the old psychiatric hospital complex on The Ridges.” “Since nearly the time of the opening of the cemeteries the State of Ohio has allowed families to erect private markers at the graves of their loved ones, There are very few graves marked in such a way, most likely because descendants are unaware of the opportunity.”
Since the take over, more information has been found out about the patients that are buried in the three cemeteries. A large portion of the information that has been recovered is about the veterans that had spent the remaining days of their lives at the Asylum. Many of these veterans did not receive honors and only 19 have had any recognition. There are 80 veterans that are buried at the Ridges. Of these veterans two fought in the Mexican War, sixty-eight fought in the Civil War, one was a member in the Confederate Army and another two veterans served with the United States Colored infantry. There are three veterans who served in the Spanish–American War, and seven fought in World War I. Some of the other veterans that are buried here were active duty in the late 19th century and the early 20th century.
NAMI has also done other things to honor those who have served our country as well as the other patients who are buried in the cemeteries at the Ridges. Besides helping replace grave stones and keeping the grounds in proper condition, in 2005, the Ridges Cemeteries Committee has been organizing Memorial Day Ceremonies for the many veterans buried at the asylum. “Prior to 2005, the veterans had never received such honors. Indeed, neither they nor the others in those cemeteries had received more than a very austere burial - no personalized service whatsoever.” NAMI started the Memorial Day Ceremonies to help restore dignity to the patients on the Ridges and to help recognize the sacrifice of the veterans, many who had probably suffered through post traumatic stress disorder as well as other post war symptoms.
“To find these “lost” veterans, they were found “through a special search within a broader research project to find background information on the over 1,900 patients buried in the Asylum’s three cemeteries. With the Help of the Athens County Veterans Service Office and a special appropriation from the Athens county Commissioners flag stands and flags have been placed at the graves of all the veterans in the three cemeteries.”
By the early 1990s, many of the original buildings had fallen into disrepair and were no longer used by the hospital and thus abandoned. The site of the original main building is now owned by Ohio University and is the one developed portion of a much larger parcel of land called, "The Ridges".
The presence of a stable funding authority, Ohio University, has ensured restoration of much of the original grounds, as envisioned by Haerlin and others.
Most buildings have been renovated and turned into classrooms and office buildings. The administration building is now the home of The Kennedy Art Museum , showcasing paintings and artwork of all different types of artists.
The largest most well known cottage that has not been renovated is the old tubercular ward or “cottage b”. It sits sheltered on a hill separated from much of the other buildings. Annual Reports of 1909 show records of the first year the cottage was used. It housed patients specifically suffering from tuberculosis. It was isolated because the illness was highly contagious. The most notable appearance aspect about he TB Ward is the large screened in porch that stretches across the front of the building. It was designed to be fire proof, so construction to renovate this building has fallen to a stop. Its walls are lined with asbestos, which also make it a huge health hazard. Ironically enough, asbestos was not known to be harmful and cause cancer of the lung, so patients were being exposed to chemicals that made their breathing even more difficult. In early 2013, Ohio University demolished the TB Ward due to an abundance of college students breaking into the building. Cottage “M” sits on the main circle and has also not been renovated. The reason it has not received the treatment is because it is also lined with asbestos. The building used to be used as male and female living quarters and was built in 1907.
The Dairy Barn Southeastern Ohio Cultural Arts Center, a nonprofit arts organization, is located in the old hospital's remodeled dairy barn; it is privately owned and operated. The Dairy Barn Arts Center  operates a calendar for sculpting and exhibits.
Members of the Athens, Ohio chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, have worked to restore the three graveyards located on the grounds of The Ridges. School organizations provide tours of the facility around Halloween time each year. The preserve is also regularly used by the school's Army ROTC battalion.
The George V. Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs is also located at The Ridges, in a set of three separate buildings across the area.