It took me a while to think of something to write about for Hamilton Heritage. For one, I am not from Hamilton and also heritage can be hard to distinguish in places that you are familiar with. After some thinking, I remembered about learning about the old Hamilton Asylum for the Insane in a class on mental health. I remembered being interested at the time and so I thought I would look into the site. After some research, I found out that there is still a building left over which is classified as a Hamilton Heritage Site.
The old Hamilton Asylum for the Insane was initially created to be an asylum for alcoholics when it opened its doors in 1876 and later expanded to other mental illnesses. The asylum encompassed five hundred acres and was self-sufficient with its own farms, shops and services. In 1890 the asylum housed 915 patients and employed 119 and quickly became a big part of Hamilton’s community. In 1884 the Century Manor, or at the time, it was known as the ‘East House’ was created. This three floor mansion which held hundreds of mentally ill over a century is the only building left from the massive asylum today.
Over this weekend I visited what remains of the old Hamilton Asylum for the Insane. When I arrived I was in awe with the beautiful Victorian Gothic architecture and the sheer size of the mansion. The building certainly stands out in the community even with the large buildings that now surround it. Although I was in awe with the architecture, as I got closer I noticed that it has clearly been neglected. The windows have all been boarded up, there is rust all over, and areas are starting to rot out. The Century Manor is blocked off from community access and is a shame that such a nice building that plays an integral role in Hamilton’s history is both being neglected and not made accessible to the public.
For the most part, society has changed its perspective on mental illness since the opening of the Hamilton asylum. New insights into mental health have rightfully led to an overall less stigmatized view on mental illness. I do not think this makes the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane a piece of negative heritage. The asylum has adapted overtime with the views of Hamiltonians and therefore is a significant and valuable piece of Hamilton Heritage.
For over twenty years the Century Manor has been vacant and blocked off from public access. After the building was declared a heritage building it was put under the responsibility of Infrastructure Ontario (IO). Access by the public was taken away due to the building being ‘structurally unsafe,’ some concerned Hamiltonians have asked why the building was allowed to become structurally unsafe if the IO was put in charge of maintaining it.
Since then, there have been talks that the building may be sold to private investors. Among those interested is Steve Kulakowsky who has a track record of taking old buildings, preserving their heritage but at the same time changing them into something new. Kulakowsky, if given the chance, envisions the building to be fixed up and used as a dormitory for students studying at Mohawk College.
I think that if this piece of heritage is being left to rot by the province, and someone is offering a way to make use of it while taking over the responsibility of restoring and maintaining it, than I think why not? It is also relevant to housing students as in its later years was used to teach a forensic psychiatry program before it was closed in 1995 (the last time the building was occupied). St. Joseph’s has a museum of the items left inside the building and that will remain, all that is left is an empty building, but not if the building is left to rot. By using this space, the heritage of the architecture and the site will be preserved as well as the history in the museum. Now the building can continue to adapt with Hamilton and be used to house students of Mohawk College.
I think selling the Century Manor to fulfill Steve Kulakowsy’s vision of a preserved heritage building, adapted to a dormitory that will house Mohawk students, would be a good use of this old building while also maintaining the Victorian Gothic architecture and the history of the building along with it.
Here are some links to learn more about the history of Century Manor and other news about the old Hamilton Mental Asylum: