Hamilton is an area with a rich, dynamic history that the city is often eager to preserve and celebrate with its citizens. However, how does the treatment of heritage sites change when they reflect a darker chapter in our collective history? What is the danger in omitting uncomfortable truths?
For Century Mansion, the last remaining vestige of Hamilton’s Asylum for the Insane, the lack of attention paid by the city is immediately apparent. After you first notice the beautiful, if imposing, Victorian-era architecture, your eye is immediately drawn to the signs of neglect, be it the rusted staircases, the broken or boarded windows and the littering of graffiti around this historic building.
Built in 1876, the asylum’s original purpose was to house alcoholics but expanded to include the growing need to contain the mentally ill of Hamilton, with the criteria for “mental illness” often extending to groups of the population deemed undesirable. The residents of the asylum were considered popular entertainment, with families often gathering to watch the patients on Sundays, bringing picnics to the fields of the hospital.
The building has been in disuse since 1995, opening for a brief window for tours in 2009 as part of the Doors Open Hamilton initiative, only to be abruptly closed off after that. Hamilton’s municipal heritage committee has tried to appeal Infrastructure Ontario to enter Century Manor but the building has remained inaccessible to both the committee and the public since then, despite consistent interest. These actions have caused Patricia Saunders, a member of the task force to save Century Manor, to make accusations against the city for “demolition by neglect”.
Infrastructure Ontario has announced that they are putting the property up for sale, and must first be considered by the provincial, municipal and federal government, other government agencies, and registered not-for-profit group for public uses before it can be put on the open-market. While Core Urban Inc., a property development group who focus on repurposing local heritage sites, have expressed an interest in turning it into student housing for Mohawk College, I feel that this is an opportunity for the government to offer an authentic account of Ontario’s history and use it as a platform to show the developments that have been made.
In terms of the future purpose of Century Manor, advocates for the building, including the founder and owner of Haunted Hamilton, Stephanie Lechniak, believe that it is an ideal space to convert into a museum about the history of mental health treatment in Canada. Lechniak explains that there have been several important artifacts recovered from Century Manor, including actual equipment used in patient treatment dating back to the institution’s opening in 1876. These include surgical implements, handcuffs, wheelchairs, electroconvulsive therapy machines, a cold water dunk tank and a Utica crib, a coffin-like structure with a caged lid used to confine patients. The range of now discredited “cures” patients in Hamilton received, sometimes to treat conditions as dire as insomnia or being a woman who didn’t conform to societal standards, included hydrotherapy (ranging from being submerged in ice baths, being wrapped in layers of wet cloth for hours and using powerful hoses on patients), tractotomies (severing the nerve tracts of the brain, which was done without opening the skull to see the areas being operated on) and lobotomies (which entailed removing sections of the brains and was popularly performed with an actual icepick and without anesthesia). As discussed by journalist Joachim Brouwer, a museum focusing on the evolution of mental health practices could start important discourses on the historical stigmatization of mental illness, allow us to celebrate how far we have come and acknowledge the ground we still have to gain.
The move to transform Century Manor into a museum would coincide with the emerging movement to reclaim sites where systemic injustices took place to transform them into empowering, educational spaces. An example of this is Brantford’s restoration plans for the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School, which will be repurposed into a museum dedicated to educating the public about the historical context surrounding residential schools, the cruelty of the transgressions against the Indigenous children sent there and the ongoing damage these institutions have caused for Indigenous culture at large.
In short, while the government continues to neglect heritage sites that do not reflect the aspects of Canadian identity they want to celebrate, the public is beginning to demand a more complete narrative of the authentic experiences of all Canadians, including the often muffled voices of marginalized members of this country. Repurposing a landmark with a shameful past like Century Manor or the Mohawk Residential School into an educational tool would send a message to Canadians that we live in a country that is willing to own up to its past transgressions and learn from our mistakes moving forward.
Brouwer, Joachim 2014. Century Manor: A Grim Reminder. Thespec.Com. http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/5179736-century-manor-a-grim-reminder/, accessed March 6 , 2016.
Craggs, Samantha 2014. No, You Can’t Come Inside Century Manor, Province Says. Cbc.Ca. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/no-you-can-t-come-inside-century-manor-province-says-1.2832976, accessed March 6 , 2016.
Cumerlato, Daniel. Century Manor Insane Asylum : Hamilton, Ontario. Ghostwalks.Com. http://www.ghostwalks.com/centurymanor-hamilton.htm, accessed March 6 , 2016.
Lechniak, Stephanie 2015. Historic Century Manor | Haunted Hamilton. Urbanicity. http://urbanicity.ca/2015/01/historic-century-manor-haunted-hamilton/, accessed March 6 , 2016.
Meskell, Lynn 2002. Negative Heritage And Past Mastering In Archaeology. Anthropological Quarterly 75(3). Johns Hopkins University Press: 557-574.
Nolan, Daniel 2015. Ontario Puts Hospital Land Up For Sale. Thespec.Com. http://www.thespec.com/news-story/5476830-ontario-puts-hospital-land-up-for-sale/, accessed March 6 , 2016.
Save Century Manor. Facebook.Com. https://www.facebook.com/groups/SaveCenturyManor#_=_, accessed March 6 , 2016.
Vincent, Donovan 2015. Aboriginals Push To Save Former Ontario Residential School Known As ‘Mush Hole’ | Toronto Star. Thestar.Com. http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2015/06/13/aboriginals-push-to-save-former-ontario-residential-school-known-as-mush-hole.html, accessed March 7 , 2016.