Understanding the World of Horton Foote Part 3: Mental Healthcare in the 1920s

This is the conclusion of a 3-part series written by Chris Baker, the dramaturg for the Primary Stages production of The Roads to Home by Horton Foote. The dramaturg is responsible, in part, for researching the world of the play and providing background and historical context for the creative team. We’ve asked Chris Baker to share some of his fascinating research here on our blog. If you missed Part 1: Performance History, click here. For Part 2: Texas in the 1920s, click here


Formerly the Texas State Lunatic Asylum

The asylum movement in the United States and Europe reflected the belief that people diagnosed with mental ailments could regain their sanity in an idealized environment free from the stress of everyday life. Asylums strived to provide a healthy diet, exercise, fresh air, adequate rest, a strict daily routine, social contact, and a kind but firm approach. This humanitarian philosophy marked a vast leap forward from earlier theories that mental illness stemmed from demonic possession and prescribed treatments such as flogging and cold water to drive out the demons.

Texas modeled its asylum after an innovative program developed in Philadelphia by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride. The Philadelphia maverick had pioneered new, progressive treatments for the mentally insane, including behavior modification, drug therapy, and an unrestrictive environment.


Postcard of Texas State Insane Asylum, 1920s.

The original building, which was dressed up with a classical portico in 1904, offered three stories and a basement for administrative offices and staff and patient quarters. Its thick, hard plaster walls could endure frequent scrubbing and the thick limestone walls and high ceilings offered relief from the Texas heat. Noisy patients were separated from quiet ones, and all patients lived above ground in rooms with at least one window. As the patient population grew from the initial 12 patients to nearly 700 by the late 1890’s, additional wings and buildings sprang up. The asylum functioned as a self-supporting village with artesian wells, gardens, a dairy, ice factory, and a sewing/tailor shop. These other historic structures were eventually destroyed by fire or demolished to make way for newer buildings.

Early residents of Hyde Park were drawn to the expansive landscaped asylum grounds, taking carriage rides on the 700 yards of graveled drives and enjoying picnics under the live oak trees and along the banks of lily ponds. Children of the era explored the Japanese-style gardens and paddled small boats to the tiny islands dotting the large lake on the southeastern corner of the property.

Taken from Texas Department of State Health Services


The Primary Stages production of The Roads to Home runs September 14- November 6, 2016 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Visit the Primary Stages website for tickets and more info.


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