Major revisions to a chapel on the Dorothea Dix campus presage changes for the in-progress destination park on the site. Advocates want more reminders of mental health treatment at the hospital, which opened in the 19th century.
By Thomas Goldsmith
The former Dorothea Dix Hospital campus is on its way to becoming a destination park for people from Raleigh and across North Carolina, principals said at a recent ribbon-cutting for its extensively renovated chapel.
Remarks at the reopening ceremony for the imposing mid-century modern Greg Poole Jr. All Faiths Chapel came from dignitaries including Janet Cowell, CEO of the nonprofit Dix Park Conservancy; Art Ross, pastor emeritus of White Memorial Presbyterian Church; and Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin.
“I just want to say that this is the first step in transforming Dorothea Dix into a destination park,” said Baldwin, who introduced her immediate predecessor Nancy McFarlane as indispensable to the project.
The 300-acre-plus campus, obtained by the city of Raleigh in a 2015 agreement with the state, served for more than 160 years as the site of one of the nation’s first state hospitals for people with mental illness. Historical records show that the first patient at the hospital arrived in 1856.
The renovation of the 1955 chapel restores its stark grandeur but does not include prominent reminders of its many years of the hospital’s patient and staff worship at the chapel or to mental health issues in general.
One attendee was Amie Schmidt, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Wake County NAMI. She enjoyed the event, but also kept in mind statistics such as the seven of ten people in North Carolina youth facilities who have mental illness.
NC Health News has been tracking the changes at the old Dorothea Dix Hospital for years. Read our prior coverage:
“There’s so much that we can do and I hope that that part isn’t ignored,” said Schmidt, whose group has already put on an awareness-raising event at the spiffed-up chapel. “It’s a great opportunity to move forward.”
In addition, Baldwin said, a stronger bond to the history and practice of mental health care at the site is in motion. Plans call for the public to be invited to tour some of the rooms and other functions of the hospital.
“Every meeting we ever have we always talk about preservation of the history,” Baldwin said after a ribbon-cutting moment. “If I had a magic wand and all this money, one of the things I would love to do is have a museum up here. And I’d love to have a research center looking at schizophrenia or mental illness because there’s not enough research in that area.”
Centuries of history
Ross, Poole’s pastor who also became a friend, was on hand to deliver an in-depth remembrance of the late Raleigh developer, eponymous chapel honoree and a key proponent of turning the property that was once labeled as a “Lunatic Asylum” into Dix Park. A force in Raleigh’s growth for decades, Poole, who died in 2018, sometimes picked Ross up for early morning visits to the Dix property, perusing its health-care past as well as its enduring natural beauty.
“We would stand at the Grove and admire the view,” Ross said. “We would walk through the cemetery and read the tombstones.
“He would speak of his own depression, something he did not want to hide.”
The property has gone through centuries of change, from early settlements of indigenous people to ownership by people who used the labor of enslaved people to the landmark establishment of the hospital for people dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, and intellectual disabilities.
Nineteenth-century activist Dorothea Dix waged a campaign to convince the North Carolina state legislature of 1848-1849 to come up with initial funding for the hospital. Schmidt, of NAMI, said after the dedication that planners should keep Dix’s legacy in mind as the chapel and park increasingly make visitors welcome.
A look at conditions seen as intolerable in years past can reveal that some are still practiced, Schmidt said. For example, about 17 percent to 73 percent of inmates in North Carolina jails posted positive screenings for symptoms of serious mental illness when booked.
“When Dorothea Dix first wanted to open mental institutions, she was looking at people with mental illness who were living on the outside,” Schmidt said. “We say, ‘Oh, they were putting people with mental illness in jails,’ but we’re still doing that.
“There are so many ways that we can honor the past by the fact that it was on this location. It can be brought forward in an empowering way, not just negatively.”
Preserving legacy in doubt
The Rev. Paul L. Anderson, of the Fountain of Raleigh Fellowship, recalled working with children with behavioral health problems who lived at Dix Hospital, coming by twice a month as part of a Baptist ministry. He was less confident than some other attendees that the story and the needs of many decades of patients would be strongly presented when all is said and done.
“You probably won’t hear about it, but somebody ought to echo it,” said Anderson, who offered the benediction at the ceremony. ”Because it’s those who write the story that get the storyline.”
The closure of the psychiatric facility was controversial when it was announced in 2011. Some saw the facility as outdated, even dangerous with many dilapidated buildings and a reputation as being a dreary, restrictive setting for psychiatric treatment.
NC Health News sponsored a 2016 community event Lives on the Hill to discuss how to memorialize the Dix Hospital history. Read about it here” Program Spurs Conversation, Debate on Future Dix Memorial
Others, though, saw a place that had been a refuge – or even a second family – being taken away.
“Dorothea Dix should have been developed as a community for the mentally ill,” former patient Eloise Brinson said in one of several videotaped oral histories collected by NC Health News for Lives on the Hill in 2016. “People could have gone out into the community and worked and come home [to Dix].”
The chapel was renovated under the direction of John Ramsay Jr., son of the original architect John Ramsay Sr. It had not been used in its full capacity for years and required some $2 million in work because of deterioration, changes in building standards and guidelines to be met under the Americans with Disabilities Act.