What is a historic landmark without a history? And what is a history without the voices of those who were affected directly by an event or institution?
The revitalization of Buffalo, NY is exciting and promising for Western New Yorkers, and while it does not benefit everyone equally across socioeconomic divides, efforts to improve and drum up support for any part of the city should be encouraged and lauded. Sometimes, however, restorations and renovations raise ethical questions that should not be ignored.
The recent renovation of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane into Hotel Henry seems impressive, noble, and empowering on the surface. The issue is that there are questions that have neither been asked nor answered to an adequate extent before the Buffalo Bandwagon and all its cheerleaders gave HH its blessing.
19th and 20th Century insane asylums are widely recognized now as horrifying places wherein patient-victims were not seen as human and, therefore, were treated inhumanely– chained to beds, kept locked in deplorable conditions, sometimes beaten, and often tortured with various “medical” devices and practices which were considered acceptable forms of treatment for socially aberrant behaviors at the time. Unfortunately, some of these practices have carried on into the 21st Century, haunting in a very real way some of the institutions we call hospitals today. The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane was no exception to this rule nor to this history of despicable degradation, which is precisely why its transformation into a “grand hotel” should have been and continue to be interrogated and treated delicately.
Not enough has been done thus far to recognize the patients of that institution as victims. This is partly due to the fact that we, as a community and larger society, continue to think it is acceptable to treat people with cognitive differences as if they are subhuman and invisible. The references all over social media to Hotel Henry as “haunted” and “spooky” are indicative of this phenomenon: that victims of the mental health industry do not exist, or -if they do- only exist as folkloric, spectral entities not entitled to actual histories or to actual restorative justice.
The thought of a person who lost their liberty and then died, isolated and alone, in a bed at the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, or at any asylum for that matter, now remaining unnamed in the psyche of Buffalonians haunts me. I am also haunted by the thought of Western New Yorkers getting tingles up and down their spines as they recline in a luxury bed, sipping a glass of wine, fantasizing about the horrors that “might have” taken place in their room. It goes beyond insensitivity and ignorance.
Here’s the issue. The treatment of those labeled mentally ill is not something to fantasize about or romanticize. It’s not something to trivialize. It’s something that should make you sick to your stomach, if you possess a conscience. It’s something that should make you solemn and mournful, in the way that you would be expected to feel if you were at a Holocaust memorial site. Human beings were rendered social outcasts and they were thrown away, cast off, mistreated, and defeated in the space that is now serving as a beautiful hotel. Revenue for our incredible city is being derived from the hotel, as it was from the asylum, but is this revenue helping people who have been affected negatively by mental illness stigma? My hope is that we start asking questions, as a city and a culture, about our own attitudes toward the institutions we are building and supporting. Hotel Henry may very well be a place that fosters respect for those who were victimized within and around its walls, but it cannot do so without acknowledging in a public way the lives, the victimization, and the very real although mostly erased history of those very people. The history of a group of victimized people is not to be glossed over. Questions need to be raised and addressed.
Here’s a question that I hope can be answered: have any significant and serious attempts been made on the part of Hotel Henry’s owners/management to honor, recognize, and pay respects to those who were imprisoned in and victimized by what was formerly known as Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane?
Restoration is one thing, but the erasure of an entire history of pain and dehumanizing treatment in the name of luxury and glamor is another. People are making fun and entertainment out of what was degradation and real pain and suffering for those who were committed at this institution up until the late 1970s. What if people were calling a former concentration camp “spooky” or “gorgeous,” with a tone that indicates titillation? What if they were holding their weddings there? Though of different origins and proportions, the use of asylums to silence and remove human beings from society is still a grave matter, and should be handled with the utmost sensitivity.
I hope at some point that a reputable local or national news source will address in greater depth the ethics of and complicated issues related to turning a site of incarceration, torment, suffering, and death into a “grand hotel.”
At the heart of this is that the majority of people do not understand what it means to be committed and force-treated. They do not understand what it is like within mental institutions. And if they do understand on the surface, if they have not been in an asylum themselves and treated as such, they do not and cannot know what it is like to lose their liberty, their reputation, their bodily freedom, their autonomy, their credibility, and their very lives. The stigma of mental illness renders people labeled “mentally ill” as virtually without a voice, unimportant, worthy of mistreatment, without an existence, erased.
There is no true restoration and renovation that is accompanied by erasure.
With restoration, comes responsibility: social responsibility. The best way for an institution like Hotel Henry to foster an ethically sound architectural restoration is to restore justice while doing so: giving a voice to those who lost their voices within its walls– those whose silent cries will forever haunt the hotel and its visitors if their history is not honored appropriately.
Some histories have been erased, and, sadly, for those locked in mental institutions, often the most disempowered among us, this is often the case. But this is something that needs to change. Hotel Henry can help by addressing issues of social injustice and by addressing the treatment of the mentally ill.
Articles like the above displayed (by Susan Glaser) participate in corporatizational myth-making by producing chic-sounding flippant over-simplifications that drum up excitement and expenditure for the hotel but that do so at expense of those who have been and are affected by the mental health industry and the stigma of mental illness. We need to be reminded that beautiful buildings do not equal beautiful behaviors in their interiors nor beautiful histories. Guests at Hotel Henry should come in attuned to the fact that they check in with their privilege: they are, unlike their predecessors, hotel guests– not prisoners.
The remote location of the former asylum reflects the social position of those labeled mentally ill in our society: they are put on the outskirts and moved away from “normally” functioning people. This further perpetuates the damaging stigma of mental illness. Architectural significance and the intentions of the architects who originally built what is now Hotel Henry are fascinating, but not as important as the untold stories of those who inhabited the asylum, those who inhabited other asylums, and those who currently are held in state mental hospitals.
While there are images of what became the Buffalo Psychiatric Center that might seem on the surface to indicate that in the late 20th Century the BPC utilized “humane programming” (for white people only, apparently) –including an insane asylum… trolley–, the images offer only the tiniest and most carefully-curated fragment of the history of that building. The larger history of 19th and 20th (and 21st) century asylums tells a different story, a beyond-troubling one: one that, unfortunately, is too often dismissed, ignored, and doomed to remain a phantom of the American psyche.
I will end this attempt to raise the awareness of Western New Yorkers with a call to action for the hotel itself.
Hotel Henry: Please consider donating a portion of your profits from this project/enterprise, yearly, to humane and non-custodial mental health organizations and initiatives, and please be public about it and clear about your purpose in doing so. Please also consider putting out a very clear statement that addresses your position on the treatment of those labeled mentally ill.
The real restoration needs to happen in the way in which we view cognitive differences.
Jessica Lowell Mason
July 14, 2017
[Notes: The collage of photographs of victims harmed by early mental industry practices does not consist of photos taken at the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. Very few photos taken within the Buffalo State institution are available to the public, and these should not be trusted as accurate indications of the BS Asylum’s practices because they were carefully taken, not by patients or family members of patients or members of the public but, by the institution itself for the purpose of constructing a one-dimensional, limited, and positive-but-inaccurate narrative about the practices within the institution, which had a monetary and reputational reason for doing so. The Richardson Complex buildings were designed in 1870. Patient records exist from 1881 to 1975, but, again, these records cannot be trusted to tell all, or perhaps any, of the comprehensive stories of the patients incarcerated in the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane because they were told from an oppressive perspective and constructed by people in positions of power who were operating under archaic and condemnable belief systems about cognition and mental health. Those who participate in the institutional oppression of powerless and marginalized groups of people cannot and should not be granted the right to speak on behalf of said people. Narratives constructed as the byproducts of powerful institutions that promote misinformation, enslavement, and degradation should be met with distrust rather than accepted blindly as the presiding narrative. A patient record in a 19th/20th century asylum should be considered carefully within its context: as a narrative constructed by an oppressive institution– not as a narrative that speaks directly to the experiences of the victims of that institution. Narratives from the mouths or hands of victims themselves, and/or their allies, should be figured into and placed at the forefront of our public consciousness and our historical projects. As long as the physician-patient relationship in the mental health industry is one built on an extreme disparity in power, medical narratives will continue to be visible, recognized entities of oppression while patient (humanistic) narratives will continue to be invisible entities that live mostly in silence with the oppressed. The mental health industry and our culture at large has to begin to recognize mental health patients as a disempowered community with a long history of victimization as well as its culpability in promoting corporate oppression and closing its eyes to the dehumanizing traditions practiced under its watch.]