We’ve all seen those movies featuring a creepy old asylum with turrets, balconies and ivy-covered, crumbling walls. Such institutions were quite common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and some have survived, abandoned or repurposed. But you might not know that there used to be a sanitarium in Flint’s current Cultural Center – and rather than being one of the stereotyped prison-like facilities, it was considered a pleasant place.
The movie The Road to Wellville shows the type of upper-crust, resort-like sanitarium that was Oak Grove. (In fact, the movie was based on another Michigan sanitarium that was active at the same time as Oak Grove – the Battle Creek Sanitarium run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Yes, that Kellogg. Oak Grove was much more sedate than the Hollywood portrayal.)
According to the Journal of the Michigan State Medical Society, vol. 12, Oak Grove Sanitarium was founded by James A. Remick of the board of trustees of the Pontiac asylum. The sanitarium sat on what is now the parking lot between the Flint Public Library and the former Flint Central High School. The site was named after a 65-acre grove of native oak trees that graced the area where the first four buildings of the sanitarium opened in 1891. It was said to be the last remaining oak grove in Michigan. The property belonged to Gov. Henry H. Crapo and was purchased after his death from his estate, and the sanitarium’s planners wanted to avoid the institutional bleakness that characterized such places. Detroit architecture firm Scott, Kamper and Scott designed a luxurious campus to serve the wealthy unwell.
The Construction and Patients
The head of the firm, John Scott, had come from England to Michigan, and his style reflected the redbrick institutions of his own country. There were Queen Anne features to Oak Grove as well, with its turrets and asymmetry. Unlike most sanitariums of the period, it was not based on the famous Kirkbride model, which has a bit of a menacing look. Oak Grove was meant to be welcoming.
“In its construction, organization and equipment, attempts have been successfully made to depart from conventional ideas of building, to avoid features purely institutional, and provide house-like surroundings for people of refined tastes, accustomed to the luxuries and conveniences of life.” —Headlight Flashes, 1896
The End of Oak Grove
One of onthetown’s predecessors, Headlight Flashes: Along the Grand Trunk Railroad System, stated in its August 1896 issue, “In its construction, organization and equipment, attempts have been successfully made to depart from conventional ideas of building, to avoid features purely institutional, and provide house-like surroundings for people of refined tastes, accustomed to the luxuries and conveniences of life.”
Oak Grove’s architects also knew the value of nature in recovery. The grounds of the complex were well maintained, with “secluded and private walks…natural beauties of the grounds…motor and carriage service…croquet plats, tennis courts and golf links.”
The buildings and site cost about $135,000. That was over $3.2 million in today’s dollars. Oak Grove Sanitarium was renamed Oak Grove Hospital a few years after it was built and became one of the country’s foremost medical centers by the early part of the 20th century. It functioned as an early rehab facility, treating people addicted to substances like alcohol and the opium-derived laudanum, as well as people with mental illnesses.
Laws governing asylum commitment were much more lax. Oftentimes, families would have members committed to keep them away from an inheritance or for a problem like an unmarried woman’s pregnancy. These mentally healthy people dwelled alongside those with schizophrenia, depression, alcoholism and other illnesses. Regardless of the reason they were at the asylum, according to writings of their time, they enjoyed an existence akin to living year-round at a vacation spa.
The Luxurious Amenities
The Headlight Flashes article describes a beautifully landscaped campus where “departments for patients are located on each side of a Central Administration Building, and connected with it by means of semi-circular corridors, which serve the purposes of solaria, conservatories, music rooms for the Women’s Department and smoking rooms for the Department for Men. Rooms for patients are large, sunny and attractive. They are heated by indirect radiation, and ventilated by flues…furnished in a manner suited to meet the requirements of those of fastidious and cultivated tastes.”
The American Journal of Insanity, vol. 53, published in 1897, extols the luxury of the fifth building, the then-new Noyes Hall, named after benefactor Dr. James F. Noyes. The redbrick Noyes Hall was behind the sanitarium’s main buildings. It was two stories tall, with dimensions of 40 by 50 feet, and was connected to the hallway that ran between the men’s building and dining room. This amusement hall was equipped with “beautiful recreation rooms…new facilities for curative treatment in the form of electrical apparatus…Turkish and Russian baths…[a] bowling alley, billiard room, and barbershop.”
Headlight Flashes says the baths consisted of a cooling room, two heated rooms, a Russian room, a shampoo room and plenty of “appliances” to treat patients with hydrotherapy, which was a bit like a session in a hot tub. There were also devices for something called “electrical treatment.”
“The electrical department is equipped with a static machine of the most approved pattern, with Galvanic and Faradic Apparatus and electric bath,” the publication recounted. Such treatments were used for various forms of paralysis. Yes, they were sending voltage throughout the body, sometimes accompanied by immersion in water. This is not to be confused with the “shock treatment” made famous by movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but was more like a sauna or whirlpool.
Leisure activities were considered part of treatment. “This corridor is provided with a highly polished floor and is used for dancing,” said the report from the aforementioned insanity journal. There were, in addition to the other amenities, a ladies’ sitting room, a lounge and a gym. The baths were open to the public but restricted to same-gender occupation.
Growth continued, and by 1913, according to the Journal of the Michigan State Medical Society, there were “seven [buildings], exclusive of cottages, out-buildings [sic], stables and garage.” Each building was devoted to a particular use, such as administration, women’s housing and men’s housing. Each of the buildings had large verandas and scenic views to soothe the spirits of those in crisis.
For all its grandeur, Oak Grove Hospital closed in 1919 after the Flint Board of Education made the institution an offer it couldn’t refuse: “The retirement of Oak Grove from the field of psychiatry has been necessitated by the purchase of the Oak Grove property…as a site for the proposed $2,000,000 high school. It has long been felt by the directors that the magnificent tract of land covered with ancient forest trees, so carefully conserved during the years of the hospital’s ownership and practically maintained as a city park in private hands, should be in the possession of the public.” At that point the president of Oak Grove, Dr. C. B. Burr, retired (from the January 1920 edition of the publication The Modern Hospital).
Oak Grove’s magnificent buildings were torn down in the early 1920s to make way for the Flint Central High School building. Over time the land was repurposed for the buildings that now comprise the Flint Cultural Center. But it is said that at least one of the original oak trees of the old grove survives.