Hospitals, asylums, and prisons are not usually places people opt to visit while on vacation. But all over the country these historic, imposing structures are being repurposed as luxury hotels, apartment complexes, or academic campuses. Some have been renovated or restored, while others sit in a state of arrested decay. Guided or audio tours address the often-complicated histories and highlight the people who lived and died within the thick stone walls—and spirits of all kinds are helping to bring life back into these forgotten spaces.
Central State Hospital opened in 1836 as the “State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum” in Milledgeville, located two hours southeast of Atlanta. Central State developed a notorious reputation, and has sat mostly abandoned for decades. Tours are available through the Milledgeville Visitor Center and held two days per month.
Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary opened in 1896, and at the time of its closing in 2008, it was the oldest operating prison in Tennessee. Brushy reopened as a tourist destination in 2018 and while it has its fair share of macabre tales, visitors will find an entirely different kind of spirit here: The Brushy Mountain Distillery produces 10 unique flavors of moonshine and offers tastings to the public.
From 1858 to 2002, the huge complex in Joliet, Illinois—with its 24 buildings and surrounding 25-foot-tall limestone wall—housed thousands of prisoners. Today, guided tours provide a glimpse into the prison’s complicated history. There's something here for everyone, including history buffs, film enthusiasts, and fans of the paranormal. Several movies and TV shows were filmed at the prison, including The Blues Brothers, Saw II, Let’s Go to Prison, and Prison Break.
Half a century ago, Cook County Hospital was treating more than 100,000 patients each year. Its emergency room was one of the busiest in the world and its operating rooms were among the first to try risky, innovative surgical techniques. Today, visitors to Chicago can check into the sprawling old Cook County Hospital thanks to a massive rehabilitation and redevelopment that has transformed the 1914 Beaux-Arts building. The vibrant complex now includes two Hyatt hotels, a food hall featuring Chicago cuisine, and an in-hotel museum that highlights the hospital’s history.
The Ohio State Reformatory, located in Mansfield, Ohio, opened in 1896 and housed more than 155,000 inmates during its nearly hundred years in operation. In 1993, just three years after it closed, the prison welcomed inmates once again—fictional residents that populate the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s 1982 novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The prison reopened as a museum in 1995 and proceeds from tours and events help fund grounds maintenance and structural improvements.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, was designed by architect Richard Andrews following the Kirkbride plan and constructed between 1858 and 1881. The largest hand-cut stone masonry building in North America opened to patients in 1864. Reaching a peak of 2,400 patients in the 1950s, the facility closed in 1994, and is now open for history and ghost tours.
The Richardson Olmsted Campus, once home to the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, comprises 13 buildings: Three have been repurposed into a luxury hotel and the remaining 10 are still in a state of suspended ruin, abandoned since 1974. Public tours take visitors through two of the vacant buildings and into a renovated corridor of Hotel Henry. But more than offering a stunning before-and-after comparison, exploring the Richardson Olmsted Campus also provides an intimate glimpse into the complicated history of mental health care in the U.S.
Eastern State Penitentiary is a former prison, operational from 1829 until 1971. The prison was one of the first examples of what would become known as the "Pennsylvania System" of incarceration, a system that encouraged separate confinement of prisoners. Now open as a museum, visitors can take self-guided or guided tours.
The Burlington County Prison, located in Mount Holly, New Jersey, was designed not only to minimize escapes, but also to serve as a space to reform inmates “through religious instruction, education, and vocational training.” Operating from 1811 until 1965, the Burlington County Prison was the oldest continuously-used prison in the U.S. at the time it closed and it reopened as a museum in 1966.
For nearly 400 years—long before this site was a destination wellness hotel—Le Monastère des Augustines served as a cloister and hospital for Augustinian sisters. During the first half of the 19th century, the sisters also welcomed approximately 1,400 orphaned or abandoned children into their space. In the 1990s, the sisters decided to create a wellness hotel and museum; Le Monastère des Augustines officially opened in 2015.
The Northern Michigan Asylum, later called the Traverse City State Hospital, opened in 1885, six decades before psychiatric drugs were first used. It provided mental healthcare for 104 years before it closed in 1989. Over the last two decades, the former hospital has been restored and transformed into luxury apartments, restaurants, and shops. What was the largest employer in Traverse City for 75 years is once again an essential part of the community, and it’s one of the largest historic adaptive reuse developments in the U.S.
When the Old Idaho Penitentiary first opened its doors in 1872, it took in the worst criminals in the West—including women and children as young as 10, simply because female- and juvenile-specific facilities didn’t yet exist. It closed in 1973 and today operates as a museum and National Historic Site. Several buildings have weathered away over time, leaving little more than the structure’s crumbling frame.
The Hot Lake Springs Hotel in La Grande, Oregon, was featured in a 2001 episode of The Scariest Places on Earth. The Colonial Revival hotel is near the 8-acre Hot Lake, which is endowed by underground springs bubbling up a half-million gallons of water every day. The average temperature of the lake is a toasty 200 degrees Fahrenheit and it's been thought to have healing properties.
Banner Photo Credit: Alexandra Charitan
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