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The State of Texas authorized the formation of a State Lunatic Asylum in 1856. Legislators decided to build the hospital in Austin, and the new facility opened in 1861. In 1925, the Texas State Lunatic Asylum was renamed Austin State Hospital. At that time, Austin State Hospital was one of 6 state-funded mental health hospitals in Texas.
Texas lawmakers created the original Mental Health Asylum as part of a nationwide movement to reform the way people with mental illnesses were cared for. Prior to the 1850s, they were cared for either in poorhouses or in the prison system. But doctors came to believe that mental illness could be cured by removing patients from environments causing or contributing to their mental distress. Instead, patients should be isolated in resort-like institutions where they could stay until they are well enough to return to society. This was the model of care adopted in Texas. Over time, these asylums became permanent residences for many patients. As fewer patients were cured and sent home, and more patients were admitted, hospitals became overcrowded and the asylum model of care fell out of favor.
Construction of the State Insane Asylum in Austin began in 1857. The design was based on the Kirkbride plan, or the theory that architecture could be therapeutic if patients were provided with spacious, airy rooms in a park-like setting. He emphasized a service system where patients were accommodated based on diagnosis and wings could be easily added as needed. The main hospital was built in segments between 1857 and 1904 with support buildings added as the hospital’s population grew.
The hospital campus was a self-contained community with extensive farmland for its own garden and its own crops, pigs, dairy, and chicken farms. All patient and staff clothing and bedding was made on site in the hospital’s sewing room and sewing workshop. The hospital also had its own power plant, water supply system, laundry room, carpentry shop, creamery, mattress factory, ice factory, infirmary and cemetery.
Texas’ oldest mental health care facility, Austin State Hospital, treated just 12 patients when it opened in 1861. Since then, it has grown to serve thousands of patients a year. In 2019, a renovation and construction project was undertaken to build a new hospital on the Austin campus while preserving the original building. The project is part of a billion dollar investment by Texas lawmakers to build and renovate state mental hospitals across the state.