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Seeking Asylum

Megan Bland's Fascination With the Ruins of a Giant Mental Institution



Forty miles south of the Loop, in the small town of Manteno, sit the remnants of one of the largest state mental facilities in the nation. Most of the redbrick cottages are crumbling, their windows blocked with plywood, and the sprawling hospital wards are surrounded by weeds. The large front windows of the Singer Building, which once housed the pharmacy and other medical services, were smashed long ago. All that's left of the three-story power station is a pile of bricks topped by a huge yellow crane.

In the last three years Megan Bland has made more than a dozen trips from her Rogers Park apartment to investigate the ruins of Manteno State Hospital, which closed unceremoniously in 1985. She was never a patient there, never an employee, yet she can list the names of every superintendent who headed the hospital in its 55-year history. She can tell you the psychiatrists or bureaucrats most of the 35 cottages were named after. She knows these buildings intimately, having spent countless hours in their hollow corridors. In her apartment she keeps a collection of artifacts: an old shoe, an empty cosmetics bottle, a wooden spool, a handwritten menu from the cafeteria, a postcard that has "This is where Lee hangs his hat" scrawled on it, a ring of rusty keys from a basement maintenance room, and a towel and sheets embroidered with the words "Illinois Department of Mental Health."

Bland has an arts background. She has no formal training in sociology or archival research and no association with any organized historical group. She describes herself as a "Bedlam-phile," someone who's trying to piece together the scattered histories of deserted institutions. "If I could travel the world and explore abandoned insane asylums, that would be a dream come true," she says. "Total institutions are what I'm mainly interested in. Huge places that people lived in and called home. Places where people lost themselves, their privacy, and even their very human nature."

In September 2002 she took Chuck Janda, a photographer who often shoots abandoned buildings, on an extensive tour of the hospital, showing him the best spots to photograph, including rooms with rows of discolored porcelain tubs that were once used for hydrotheraphy. "She knew everything about those buildings," he says. "She knew how the beds were laid out, and in the old kitchen area she even knew how they arranged the tables."

Bland is quick to say the 1,200-acre Manteno campus is full of mysteries she hasn't solved. Walking through a wide overgrown courtyard, she points to a building that has graffiti across its brickwork. "I can't figure out why this building was named Hannah," she says. "Who the hell was Hannah? Why was it named Hannah? There's nothing I can find that can tell me why."

Bland calls her effort to document the history of this once renowned institution the Manteno Project. She's assembled her research and observations, as well as pictures of objects she's found, on a Web site, and she hopes one day to publish a book, possibly through a print-on-demand service. Yet she says she's content to have her work known to only a few other Internet asylum buffs. "If I didn't have Manteno State Hospital I think I would go nuts," she says. "I really sink my heart and soul into my sites and their content. I may not be the greatest Web site designer or writer, but I enjoy doing it--and that's all that really matters to me."

Bland has tried to save Manteno. She fought to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places but lost. Parts of it have been rehabbed, but most of the buildings are slowly being torn down. "Manteno is probably going to get destroyed," she says matter-of-factly. Then she adds, "I have a really weird connection to it. You know, I just love the place."

Bland, who's 35, discovered Manteno after getting involved with some local urban explorers, a growing subculture of people who search out unoccupied city spaces--abandoned buildings, subway tunnels, sewer systems, old factories--then recount their adventures on a ring of Web sites. In February 2001, shortly after she and her husband moved here from Denver, Bland went with a small group of explorers to Manteno. For the first time she felt the thrill of sneaking down darkened stairwells and through cavernous steam tunnels. "It was kind of like a dream find," she says. "It was like this huge, extensive mass of buildings sitting wide open, inviting you to come in."

Soon Bland was the main organizer of a loosely knit group of around 20, most of whom were professionals in their late 20s and early 30s--teachers, attorneys, real estate agents, photographers, writers. She set up a central Web site for them. "They would send me their stories and pictures, and I would publish them and all that," she says. "I organized the meetings that were on the second Sunday of every month, and we would get together and talk about, OK, where do you want to go? OK, where have you been?"

Using names such as Bakunin, Furywork, and Ghostly--Bland chose the moniker ShyX, pronounced "shikes"--they described trips to the Joliet Army Ammunitions Plant, deserted steel mills, Northwestern University's steam tunnels, the gutted Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, and the freight tunnels that lie 40 feet beneath downtown Chicago that could be accessed only through manholes in the middle of intersections. They gave themselves a name, the Chicago Urban Explorers, and adopted safety rules and a strict code of conduct: there was to be no vandalism, no stealing, no breaking and entering, and no littering. No one under 18 was allowed to be in the group.

But CUE began to unravel after one of its members--Joseph Konopka, aka Derailer, aka Dr. Chaos--was arrested in March 2002 for storing cyanide and other chemicals in a CTA passageway beneath the Loop. It cost him a 13-year prison sentence.

CUE got national media coverage, the CTA threatened to sue, and members were interrogated by the FBI. That set off infighting. One person close to the group who refused to give his name describes Bland as a "mediawhore" who ruined the urban exploration scene by popularizing it through her Web site and by focusing "on flashy artwork and bandwidth hungry flash introductions rather than substance." A year later CUE members got into an angry debate on their Web forum with local members of 2600, an international computer hacker group Konopka was associated with. Bland deleted many of the postings she felt were over-the-top. A week later the CUE Web files were infiltrated. The site was covered with pornographic photos and words, more than $23,000 was charged to her server account, and obscene e-mails were sent out from her address to everyone in her address book, including her mother. Bland shut down the Web site, and CUE more or less disbanded.

Bland describes the whole experience as traumatic. She says that she's officially abandoned urban exploring and now focuses exclusively on Manteno State Hospital.

On the Manteno Project Web site are portions of a 1953 film sponsored by the Illinois Department of Public Welfare, Working and Playing to Health. Doctors in lab coats march up the long steps of the immaculate Singer Building. An ambulance slowly drives across the long boulevard before a row of identical cottages. Nurses tend to patients as they walk along the crisscrossing paths on what looks like a university campus. The Web site also includes testimonials from former employees and a time line that's rich in random historical details.

Formally dedicated in 1929, Manteno housed as many as 8,200 patients in its mid-50s heyday. "It was pretty much like a village within a village," says Scott Wood, the fire and safety chief for the Department of Veterans Affairs nursing home that took over the north end of the campus after the hospital closed. Wood's mother and grandmother worked at the mental institution as nurses, so as a child he spent a lot of time on the wards; later he was a security guard there. He says that until the mid-60s the hospital used the surrounding 800 acres of state-owned farmland to produce all of its own beef, pork, and vegetables, with patients doing a lot of the work. "I always heard it was in the high 90th percentile of being self-sufficient," he says. "We had our own water tower and reservoir. We had our own coal-fired generating plant. Basically we had our own railroad spur that came in the west of the facility that would drop off the coal to run the boilers and other supplies." And they had their own morgue and crematorium.

Manteno also served as the hospital for the surrounding area--thousands of babies were delivered there, and an entire ward was devoted to treating tuberculosis. "For my folks and lots of other people there was no work in southern Illinois," says Wood. "The coal mines were in and out of production." Manteno, along with the Shapiro mental health center in nearby Kankakee, "employed thousands of people. For a lot of people it was the first good job they ever had."

But like most large state-operated mental hospitals, Manteno saw its patient population shrink during the deinstitutionalization movement of the 60s and 70s, when the emphasis in treatment shifted to smaller, community-based nursing homes and prescribing psychotropic drugs. In 1973 the hospital leased 75 acres of farmland directly south of the campus to a business that turned the land into a golf course. By 1980 the patient population had declined to about 850, and in 1984 Governor James Thompson announced that the hospital would close. The north end was taken over by the VA, the south end by Diversatech, a local business group that tries to draw industry and development to the region.

Bland wants to conjure up the people who once filled Manteno, though that's often difficult because patient records are confidential, sealed by the state. "Superintendents were considered kings when they ran these hospitals--they called the superintendents' wives the first ladies," she says. "They had tea parties, and the patients thought it a privilege to get to work at the tea parties. It's all really bizarre and fascinating--and it doesn't exist anymore. I realize there's a lot of bad with the electroshock therapy and misdiagnosis, but I almost have this romantic view that it was like a castle and a kingdom. I don't believe in ghosts at all--and ghost freaks bug the hell out of me--but if to see a ghost is just to feel a sense of history, then anyplace I've explored I've felt that. You can imagine the people walking around and working, just doing daily-life stuff in that environment. And now it's totally abandoned."

On most workdays this past summer Bland could be found either in the back rooms of Apple Computer's downtown retail store, where she worked in inventory, or in Northwestern University's Health Sciences Library, just north of the Loop, where she worked as a computer lab assistant. At the library in early July she sits at a counter, skeletons, plastic brains, and rubber replicas of fetuses in eight stages of growth on shelves behind her. She says her only responsibilities are to answer students' occasional computer questions and fill the printers with paper. She spends many of the long, quiet hours there carefully selecting brightly colored patches from a pouch dangling from a hook beside her and adding them to a small, half-finished quilt. Or she thumbs through books on the subject that intrigues her the most. "This one is amazing," she says, pointing to an 1856 charcoal drawing of Philadelphia's massive East State Penitentiary in David Rothman's The Discovery of the Asylum. "Just the sheer scale is mind-boggling." Also on her desk are Andrew Scull's Masters of Bedlam and Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization.

She describes how the rise of the large state-run asylums and penitentiaries during the mid-1800s in Europe and the U.S. affected the way society viewed the mentally ill, then stops abruptly and cheerily crosses the room to help a student. "One of my qualifications for having a job is that it has to be helpful," she says. "It doesn't have to be saving trees or anything, but it has to be something where I'm in a position where I'm getting compliments. I'm just like, don't even pay me. I don't care as long as I'm doing a good job. That's all I need."

Bland has worked at the library for only six months. Her previous jobs included working in construction and day care, as an accounting technician for the U.S. Department of Defense, and as a gravestone designer. She's never stayed in a job more than two years, and today her backpack contains a letter of resignation she plans to slip onto her boss's desk before she leaves. She says she needs more free time to work on household chores and the Manteno Project.

Bland seems to like jobs where she can be like wallpaper, yet she clearly also wants to connect with people, help them, even lead them in some larger project. These contradictory impulses often seem to have led her to take jobs that soon bore her, but they seem perfect for the Manteno Project--she can help people with their inquiries and still remain relatively anonymous and unburdened by responsibility.

The library job does feed her fascination with things, especially old things. She slips between the musty bookshelves in the basement, fingering the ornate bindings of antique medical books. "I sneak down here almost every time I work," she says. "Sometimes I'll be down here for hours and not realize it." She pulls out a frayed book by Sigmund Freud and slowly turns its pages. "The med students, they never come down here and look at the books unless it's for some report they're doing or something. People don't even know how amazing it is to be around these old books--it's like a treasure hunt." She puts the book back on the shelf and whispers playfully, "Sometimes I like to come down here and just touch them."

Jan Heppe, head librarian for the Manteno Public Library and a lifelong resident of the town, has given Bland lots of information and material on the hospital. "I thought it was a worthwhile project," she says, "and I respected her for taking it on, because we've had a number of requests from people and not had a lot of information to give them. She kind of brought it all together and filled in the gaps." Until the beginning of last summer, Bland made trips to the library nearly every month, and Heppe, who says Bland was always professional and trustworthy, even let her check out a collection that ordinarily would never leave the library--bound copies of old Manteno State Hospital weekly newsletters.

In compiling the information she found for her Web site, Bland used many of the techniques she'd developed while running the CUE site. Like urban archaeologists, she presents "discoveries" such as a department of health report on Manteno's 1939 typhoid epidemic as artifacts that can help solve a larger mystery. But she's also tried to distance herself from the urban-explorer crowd, posting photos of only the exteriors of buildings, not the interiors, which explorers are most interested in. She won't answer e-mail inquiries about tunnel entrances or how best to avoid security, responding only to questions about the hospital's history or from people searching for information about relatives who were patients there. "I think I try to get more academic than urban-explorer kind of stuff," she says. "I try to keep away from that. Because, you know, no one would take me seriously as an urban explorer. It's kind of like I'm trying to hide this dirty little secret or something, but I mean, I wouldn't have been interested in it if I hadn't been there." As she's moved away from the urban-explorer subculture she's felt less and less comfortable entering the abandoned buildings.

The scholarly objectivity of the historical details on the Web site contrasts sharply with Bland's intensely personal response to the former mental institution. One section of the Web site is devoted to her artwork--an oil painting depicts a Manteno waiting room, another painting shows rows of hospital beds, and a computer-generated image presents a glowing straitjacket floating down an abandoned corridor. The FAQ section of the Web site shifts abruptly from the authoritative third person to first person as Bland states that she was never a patient at Manteno.

Bland is particularly fascinated with the case of Gennie Pilarski, a 25-year-old woman who'd completed three years of college at the University of Illinois before being committed by her parents to a state psychiatric facility in 1944; she was moved to Manteno in the early 50s. It's one of the few personal histories Bland knows something about, because Pilarski's story was recounted by Cook County public guardian Patrick Murphy in a 1998 Tribune article. He described Pilarski as "an exceedingly bright young person...who wished to live on her own and away from her parents, but at the same time may have been suffering from episodes of manic-depressive disorder." Over several years, her chart noted, she underwent "187 electric shock therapies in two times a week maintenance series." In 1955 Pilarski had a lobotomy and seven more shock therapy treatments. She would spend the next 45 years in various nursing homes, Murphy wrote, "incoherent and incontinent, plagued by demons only she could understand." She died in a Chicago nursing home in 1998, when she was 80 years old. By then she was a ward of the state, with no friends or family left.

Bland says Pilarski's case is a telling example of the way society saw people with mental illness: "She was an independent woman who had some problems, and someone slammed her in an institution."

Two years ago Bland came upon a quote from the Tribune story written in large black letters in various places in the deserted buildings--on a hydrotherapy tub, a stairway wall, a dentist's drill station. She found out that the graffitist was a 26-year-old Chicago-area artist named Kristyn Vinikour, who'd chosen the words used by a doctor to describe Pilarski when she was admitted to Manteno: "'Extremely quiet but friendly and agreeable. Cooperative in ward and routine.' Later, he charted, 'No signs of active pathology.'"

"I think the reason Manteno hit me so hard is because of my own struggles with mental illness," says Bland. "I think that ever since I was a kid I was afraid I would be put in a straitjacket and put in a padded cell."

Bland was raised in Greenwood, Indiana, a once rural town that got enveloped by the suburban sprawl of Indianapolis. She grew up in the same house her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother did and remembers a childhood of cornfields, local swimming pools, and church.

Bland's mother, Pam, says her daughter was intellectually curious but not really interested in school--she preferred to watch Jacques Cousteau on television. Pam says she was quiet and artistically talented but sometimes withdrawn, perhaps partly a response to her hyperactive younger brother. Pam took her daughter to see a therapist for the first time when she was eight. "I think at the time we thought it was important that she could have somebody outside," she says, "just to have her own time with."

Bland remembers little about the trips to the therapist besides the stuffed animals and toys. "I think it was more of an experiment on my mother's behalf," she says. "It was the 70s--everybody was doing it back then."

Bland's mother had a master's degree in social work and did family counseling as well as counseling in a hospital psychiatric unit, though she says she tried to avoid "therapizing" her children. Bland's father, Roger, was a nurse practitioner who'd served in Vietnam as a medic; he worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield and often volunteered on weekends at the local Salvation Army medical center. "I'd go there with him sometimes," Bland says. "It was an alcoholic treatment center that was like something out of a state hospital." She remembers following her father through a fog of cigarette smoke while he checked blood pressures and visited with patients. She says he always seemed distant and recalls telling her therapist that he reminded her of the wire and cloth surrogate monkey mothers in Harry Harlow's 1950s experiments. "I was never really close to him, and I'm still not," she says. "It's just weird. I talk to him once in a while, but it's kind of like a bad boyfriend. I have to do all the work to keep up the relationship with my own father, and I'm like, eh, I don't think so."

Her first bout of depression followed the death of her grandfather in 1978, when she was ten. She says years later a therapist told her that "because my father was in Vietnam when I was born, I bonded with my grandfather as my father--because he was the only male that was there from when I was an infant. And so when he died it was like my father died." Bland was devastated, and Pam says her daughter dealt with his loss "by being somewhat resentful" of her father--"probably afraid of separation." Bland remembers periods of depression and seeing therapists throughout her teenage years, and she says she was deeply afraid of being hospitalized, imagining horror stories of abused patients and insurmountable bureaucracies.

Bland despised high school and the constant vying for popularity. She put her creative energy into painting and drawing. "It was the only thing the cheerleaders respected me for," she says, chuckling.

Pam says her daughter was probably more normal as a child than Bland remembers. Pam says she had lots of friends and dealt with her fears intelligently, approaching them directly and then immersing herself in the activity that frightened her. Pam also questions Bland's characterization of herself as depressed. "I guess to me it was always more of a sensitivity," she says, "that she was sensitive to the needs of other people." She also suggests that because Bland saw her parents helping people, she developed a deep sense of compassion that transferred into frustration and angst in the face of injustice. "I guess sometimes she probably did have some depression," she says. "I don't know though. I just think that she was always a person that was real sensitive and that she was a person that kind of had that in her genes."

After graduating from high school in 1987, Bland started college at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. Her parents divorced later that year. She grew frustrated with the school's lack of focus on traditional art techniques, dropping out after her third year. She moved to Colorado, then lived out of her van as she traveled around New Mexico and Arizona. In 1997 she met her future husband, Roger Bland, in Denver. They married in 1999 and a year later moved to Chicago.

Bland says she's seen a therapist only sporadically since college. For a period last year she took the antidepressant Paxil, but she stopped after having several panic attacks.

Roger, who's 46 and works as a baggage handler at O'Hare, thinks his wife's experience with the mental health profession drew her to the Manteno Project. "It's part of discovering herself," he says. "It's like a lot of people who face a problem--it leaves a mark on them that they continue to live with, and they get interested and want to know why. It's a big question, and it has personal meaning to her, because if she had been born 40 or 50 years ago she might have been in that institution. Who knows?"

"Hey idiot!" Bland shouts at a sedan full of elderly women. The sedan hesitates, trying to merge into the gridlock downtown. Bland points. "Yes, you, you freaking--go!" She flails her arms and screams, "Move!" The sedan creeps into place, and the women wave gratefully. Bland lights up a cigarette. "I swear to God, the women in this town are the worst fucking drivers."

Eventually Bland makes her way to the highway and heads south toward Manteno. She stares into her rearview mirror suspiciously, speeds up, then slows down. "This person behind me better not hit me," she says, as industrial music by KMFDM plays on the stereo. She holds her breath as she passes a semi. "This is what depression does to you," she says, flicking her cigarette out the window. "It makes you paranoid and nervous sometimes. Sometimes you're afraid that people on the street are just going to run up and punch you or something."

It's the middle of July, the first time in more than two months that Bland has been to Manteno. "It's kind of like my child," she says, "so I have to go down and visit it once in a while." It's becoming harder for her to go, because each time more buildings have been demolished. "It kills me when the buildings are not there anymore," she says. "I don't know what it is about a lot of these buildings, but you want them to exist even if nobody does anything to upkeep them. OK, a lot of these buildings are falling apart, but to me it just seems sad--because somebody could renovate it."

Elaine Schwass, administrative assistant at the veterans' home at Manteno, says that the 30 major hospital buildings that sit on the VA's side of the property were full of asbestos, making the cost of renovating them astronomical. The VA has rehabbed 13 and demolished 15. Schwass adds, "There's a lot of thrill seekers that like to come out, and that's a big reason why a lot of our buildings were taken down. Kids were getting into them. They were vandalizing them. We were afraid of injury and liability." The VA has a ten-person security team monitoring the campus 24 hours a day, and they've caught hundreds of trespassers. Last year, in an attempt to show they were taking the problem more seriously, they had eight arrested.

"We're extremely paranoid about it," says Scott Wood, "especially because we have a tunnel complex underneath the campus, and if somebody gets hurt down there they could literally lie there forever."

James Condon, a 19-year-old from Tinley Park, knows the steam tunnels below the hospital campus well, because they allow access to many of the boarded-up buildings and locked wards. He and his friends have been exploring Manteno for three years, armed with flashlights, cameras, and satellite photos. "About half the time we went there we would see groups of kids just like us walking around, and we would team up with them and explore," he says. "It was something out of a movie almost--realizing insane people walked through these same halls." But, he says, "in the last year it's really started to change. They tore down some really interesting buildings. They tore down the courtyard building, which I found out later contained a morgue."

Condon says he believes Manteno was closed because patients were being abused and there'd been a string of malpractice-related deaths, all kept secret from the public. "I heard that they re-leased patients right out onto the streets," he says, "and that they're still living underground in the steam tunnels." He wonders whether the slow demolition of the buildings is part of a cover-up, an attempt to bury the evidence forever.

These are just the types of fabrications Bland hopes to dispel with the project. Yet although she's increasingly sought the legitimacy of a true historian, she still has doubts about her work on the Manteno Project. "I keep feeling inadequate for it," she says. "I get this feeling like, well, I don't have any right to write this book, and I don't have any background as some scholarly person who's got a degree in psychological history or anything like that." She pauses. "If nothing else, I can learn all this stuff--another bunch of useless information to add to the file."

The Manteno campus is still stalled between two eras. HomeStar Bank operates out of the restored administration building, and a drug and alcohol treatment center occupies a revamped old ward. Clients stand in clusters outside the facility, silently lifting cigarettes to their mouths. Nearby are rows and rows of empty boarded-up buildings.

Bland points out a building featured in the 1953 department of health film, then slows the car and motions toward an empty lot beyond a row of trees, the place the film shows ambulances driving by. "Those buildings were destroyed," she says.

Rounding the corner, she drives along the U-shaped main boulevard. "God, people, there's nothing that's going to be left down here," she says. "Look at how beautiful these buildings are--and they're going to just fucking destroy every single last one of them." She passes Hinton Hall, which was refurbished by the VA, then spots a new pile of rubble. She'd read the reports on the Internet but hadn't believed them. "This is just sad," she mutters. "This is really sad. This is just sickening."

She parks and gets out of the car but doesn't shut her car door for fear the noise will draw the attention of the security guards. She walks over to a heap of red bricks and mortar that runs the length of the block and stares blankly into the former basements of four cottages. "Wines, Dewey, Pinel, and White," she says. She selects several of the bricks and places them in the trunk of her car, then says she's really looking for the engraved stone from the top of the doorway to Pinel that read 1929, the year it was built. She keeps turning over stones but can't find it.

Bland and her husband are planning to move back to Indiana in January. They'll live in her grandmother's old house, the one she grew up in. Her mother lives next door.

Chicago, she says, is too nerve-racking--her sweltering apartment, the traffic, the noise. Everyone is so crammed together, so angry and frightened, she says, it's like a city of crazy people. "Manteno wasn't so bad," she says. "It was actually less crazy than the rest of the world, when you think about it."

Manteno will be more than a two-hour drive from Greenwood, and Bland doesn't think she'll be able to visit as often. "Maybe once or twice a year," she says. Yet she knows the decrepit buildings aren't likely to stay standing for long. She wants to see them saved--refurbished and leased to private businesses. "But then I know I can't explore them anymore," she says. "It's like I always want to go back to the way it was before, but I also want them to stay abandoned and falling apart. And none of that is going to happen. My fantasy isn't realistic."

Still, she gets satisfaction from knowing that her Web site will allow the hospital to exist in virtual form. "In a way," she says, "I've brought life back to Manteno." She intends to keep working on the book about Manteno but wants to abandon the pretense of academic objectivity and make the narrative more a personal history, one that details her explorations and discoveries.

A truck slowly drives by on the road, and Bland glances at it nervously, then returns to scanning the pile for the date stone. She points and says, "People once walked on this piece of tile." She picks up two bricks that are still cemented together and weighs them in her hand. Then she tosses them back on the heap. "Aw, screw it," she says.

Brushing the dirt from her shirt, she spots a small red butterfly that's landed on a hunk of concrete. "Ooh, look at that," she says. The butterfly slowly fans its wings. She lifts her camera, hesitates, then snaps a picture.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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