The first generation of settlers who came into the new state of Ohio after its admission to the union in 1803 were a self-reliant band of people.
They had to be, in a place where physicians were rare, public-safety officers were few and far between and firefighting was by bucket brigade.
Eventually, local villages, townships and counties began to provide some of these needed services. In fact, the first building constructed in the new capital city of Columbus in 1812 was not the modest, two-story brick Statehouse, but the modest, two-story Ohio Penitentiary.
There was a certain logic to the order of construction. Prisoners from the penitentiary helped to build the other public buildings in the new capital.
After the first 20 years of the state's history, the need for more state institutions was recognized, as well. In the 1820s, Columbus became the home of schools and treatment facilities for the blind and the deaf. Then, in 1835, largely due to the efforts of Columbus doctor William Awl, the Ohio General Assembly "passed an act providing for the erection of a Lunatic Asylum."
Prior to this time, mentally disabled people were brought before a local justice of the peace. People found to be "harmless lunatics" were sent to the local poorhouse; those considered to be danger to themselves or others were taken to the county jail.
Patterned after the Massachusetts Lunatic Asylum, the new facility was designed by Statehouse architect Nathan Kelley. A report to the legislature described the new building:
"The structure will consist of a centre building and two wings, all extended upon the front and measuring 266 feet. The centre, or principal edifice will be eighty-one feet long by forty-five feet in width, three stories and an attic in height, and ornamented in front with a plain portico supported by four Ionic columns."
Land was purchased from residents Alfred Kelly and Robert Neil and the new building was set back 200 yards from East Broad Street, facing south. Today, Interstate 71 crosses East Broad Street at the site.
It was designed to care for about 150 people, but it soon became clear that a larger building was needed. From 1843 to 1847, east, west and center wings were added, bringing the total number of rooms to 440.
Dorothea Dix, a tireless advocate for the mentally disabled, visited the asylum in 1844 and commended the state for its good work.
The asylum was a place where important and valuable work in the treatment of the mentally disabled was undertaken the next 30 years. Then, in one night, it was no more. A later account described the event:
"On Wednesday, it was usual for the patients to assemble in the amusement hall for recreation. They were thus engaged on Wednesday, November 18, (1868), and the last quadrille in the customary dance had been called, when, a little after nine o'clock, an attendant came into the hall and informed the superintendent, Dr. Peck, that a fire had broken out in the sixth ward ... An alarm was at once telegraphed, and about fifteen minutes later, the three steam fire engines then owned by the city, were throwing water from the cisterns ...
"Within half an hour after the pumping began, the water in the asylum cisterns gave out ... The fire made steady progress along the great wing, pushing its advance under shelter of the heavily sheathed tin roof. Its fierceness set the feeble resources of the fire department at defiance, its smoke repelled all who sought to penetrate its lair.
"The entire official and working force of the institution, together with scores of helpful citizens who came rushing to the scene, therefore bent their entire efforts to the rescue and removal of the insane from the burning building. This was accomplished in various ways. Some were lifted through holes cut in the roof and ceiling, others were taken out through the windows, from which the strong iron gratings were wrested. Women with hair disheveled, almost naked, and shrieking in terror, were borne by strong arms through the glare of the flames along the steep roof.
"The ward where the fire first appeared contained thirty-two women. Six of these were caught in the smoke before help could reach them and were suffocated to death. Their lifeless bodies were snatched from the flames and stretched upon the grass, then rapidly whitening with falling snow."
The building was a total loss. In time, the decision was made to move to a new location and to build an even larger institution. The new building -- in the Hilltop west of the city -- would be the largest building under one roof in the United States until the Pentagon was built.
The site of the former asylum was sold and became the East Park Place addition, parts of which still can be seen on Jefferson and Hamilton avenues.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.