Introduction: the Asylum Landscape

Mimico Lunatic Asylum. Circa 1900.

Uncompensated Patient Labour

For over sixty years, patient labour was indispensable in the daily operation of the hospital. With the exception of the Moorehouse as well as the New Trades Building and Cafeteria, all buildings were constructed mostly by directly supervised patients. Initially, they dug and constructed the foundations and finished the interior of the buildings. Later, patients erected entire structures under the supervision of asylum carpenters or Department of Public Works staff. Building shells of the original structures and more specialized jobs for the service buildings were secured through contracts and the Department, which was responsible for their design and construction.

Availability of unpaid patient labour meant that the institution was designed to be economically self-sufficient. Patients tended to the vegetables grown in garden near the Assembly Hall and baked, while tea and sugar were brought into the asylum. Fruits were also grown in the orchard that still survives on the west side of Kipling Avenue. The patients were also required to work on the two sizeable farms which were located to the west and north of the asylum. At the height of its operation, the farms also supplied meat to the main kitchen, as poultry, pigs and cows were raised here as well.They were also responsible for the upkeep of the therapeutic landscape of the ground under the supervision of the asylum gardener. Since their labour was perceived to be beneficial to their health and, therefore, part of their treatment, they were not accorded any financial compensation.

Work was divided among gender lines that conformed to the ideas that followed the lines of Victorian propriety. Women were engaged in domestic tasks, which were mostly performed indoors, such as laundry and meal preparation. Nonetheless, their responsibilities also extended to farm work, such as feeding of the livestock. Men, on the other hand, spent time mostly outdoors on farming and gardening, but also indoors as well, engaging in such activities as carpentry.

Cottages 5, 4, and 3, May 2011.

The Design of the Cottages

Cottages 1–5 provided accommodation for female patients and had finished attic space with dormers, while Cottages A–E housed male patients (their attics were unfinished, but had full high basement for accommodation). The Cottages, measuring forty by eighty feet with an addition, were initially designed to fifty patients each, although by the 1930s, overcrowding became the norm in the lives of the patients. Two-storey sunrooms, initially used as lounge areas, were added to both sides of every Cottage, replacing one-storey wooden verandahs that deteriorated by the early 1920s. In addition, some of the original detailing of the Cottages (including the porches and decorative chimneys) were removed (budget constraints that were prevalent at that time did not allow for their restoration) as part of the renovations (which were also performed by patients without compensation) in the 1930s.

The Cottages were two-storeys high to reduce number of deaths in case of fire (since lower buildings are easier to evacuate). Their exterior design that consists of large windows made their interior well ventilated and bright. Each dormitory was to include no more than eight beds and at least ten single bedrooms. Every Cottage was equipped with its own kitchen and dining room until the institution had grown large enough to accommodate a central kitchen.

At some point, an addition was constructed on the rear wing on the top storey of Cottages 1, 2, A, and B to provide more accommodation. In addition, all the Cottages once had slate roofs. Improvements were made over the years to the heating and electrical systems to reduce fire hazard. Alterations were also made to install new methods of treatment, such as the Gagenstrom bathing apparatus introduced to all the Cottages with the exception of Cottage 5 and E (which were “refractory” buildings, designed to house the incurable and the criminally insane), between 1902 and 1904.

The Architect and the Style

Kivas Tully (1820–1905), the Chief Provincial Architect, was responsible for preparing architectual plans for the buildings. He also designed a number of other structures in Toronto, including the Old Trinity College. The design of the therapeutic landscape was developed by Samuel Matheson, a landscape gardener. The asylum was built in the combination of the Romanesque and Gothic Revival styles.

Cottages C, D, and E from Lakeshore Boulevard West, May 2011.

The Asylum and Moral Treatment

When the asylum opened on January 21, 1889, it operated as a branch of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum (located in Toronto at 999 Queen Street West). Mimico Branch Asylum was the first institution in Ontario that espoused a new approach to the care of the mentally ill, inspired by the newly emerging practice of moral treatment. Doctor Joseph Workman, the Medical Superintendent of the asylum in Toronto, envisioned an isolated institution that was located outside of the city in a rural, quaint setting. This new philosophy toward treatment rejected the large single institutional structure in favour of a grouping of buildings that were more domestic in character and size.

This line of thinking is also reflected in the architectural plans prepared by Kivas Tully. For example, the sleeping area is labelled as a “bedroom,” rather than as “ward” or a “cell.”. The Cottages also contained “parlours, ” day rooms for the patients.

The grounds in the vicinity of the buildings were carefully landscaped by patients under the the direction of the asylum gardener, following the designed outlined by Samuel Matheson, a landscape gardener. This included planting of trees, flowers, and shrubs, and construction of roads, walks, and bridges, wharf and sea wall as well as the gazebo and the pavilion near the original shore line. The wooded area located near the shore provided an opportunity for patients to temporarily escape the institutional character of the Cottages. The swale, the most prominent natural feature of the grounds, was originally a site of a natural creek. Patients were responsible for reshaping of the slopes and the bottom of the creek.

The effect of this elaborate, carefully designed landscape was to create avenues of trees, park areas, and lake vistas, which were believed to have a calming effect on the minds of the patients. Doctor Nelson Beemer, the superintendent between 1894 and 1928, illustrated this sentiment in his annual report:

[G]roups of patients... were permitted to enjoy freedom of the grounds and the privilege of living out of doors under the trees. That so much comfort could be experienced by so large a number of patients has been of course the attainment of a more desirable object, but along with that comfort another very great end was attained, namely the universal quiet and composure among the patients.

Middletown State Hospital, visited by Tully and O’Reilly in 1885.

The “Cottage” System of Asylums

Beginning in 1850, the medical profession began to advocate for separating different classes of patients. Doctor D.K. Clark, the Medical Superintendent of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, argued that the interaction between the acute and the chronic patients interfered with the treatment of the former. He asserted that the condition of the incurable patients who were tranquil could be stabilized by placing them in a home-like setting. This way, the expensive asylum facilities could be used to treat patients who still responded to treatment. In addition, the chronic also represented the majority of the labour force that was not engaged in farm labour at Toronto.

Clark unsuccessfully lobbied the provincial government for years to acquire the “Model Farm” in Mimico. It was located in a rural area, but in a close proximity to the city. His requests were ignored even when the Asylum in Toronto was forced to sign a five-year lease for an annex to the Rockwood Asylum in Kingston to provide living space for the chronically ill. However, the continually growing demand eventually outgrew all available accommodation and the government finally approved the farm for the use of an asylum in 1887.

The cottage system of asylum was a new model for the treatment and accommodation of the mentally ill. It originally was envisioned by Fred Wines of the Illinois Board of State Charities, who wanted to recreate country village landscape over a large tract of land. The first asylum that adapted this design was the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane, constructed in 1879. At Illinois, the cottages were centred around the central administrative building, and each housed a classification of patients. Mimico shares many similarities with this asylum. Tully toured it in 1885 before he began to work on the architectual plans for Mimico.

The design also included dining halls, day rooms, recreational space, various workshops, chapel, and infirmaries. The cottage system was adopted for the plan at Mimico due to the comfort it afforded to patients, being at the same time a cost-effective accommodation that could be easily expanded as needed. Clark also asserted that the design invoked “the idea of family or home community,” which also provided a separate type of housing for the incurably ill.


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Additional information and corrections were provided by Ed Janiszewski.