Central State stands among Milledgeville’s literary and arts scene as a reminder of darker days gone by.
Growing up, all that most kids of a certain age knew about Milledgeville, Georgia, was that it was the location of Central State Hospital, the largest hospital for the mentally ill in the state. At one time, it was the largest institution of its kind in the world, first known as the Georgia State Lunatic Asylum. In years past, a popular admonition to unruly youngsters, or in fact anyone exhibiting erratic behavior, was “We’re going to have to send you to Milledgeville.” And they knew that meant they’d better straighten up and fly right.
Milledgeville is a lovely town with two fine institutions of higher learning — Georgia College & State University and Georgia Military College — a walkable downtown with unique shops and restaurants and a very active literary and lively arts scene. It’s still also home to Central State Hospital, almost all of which is now closed, but its sprawling campus remains. A handful of buildings are still in service, such as the Veterans Hospital, but the vast majority of Central State’s large buildings are empty. Far from an uninteresting collection of nondescript structures on an unremarkable piece of land, a drive through the campus, with its rolling green space sheltered by a canopy of pecan trees, reveals something quite different.
At its prime, Central State was a thriving city unto itself, with its own chapel, train depot, a large greenhouse, a sizeable building dedicated solely to the task of maintaining “Laundry” (as a sign over the door still proclaims), an auditorium, tennis courts, a baseball field and a facility that was once the largest kitchen in the world. Central State had its own power plant with massive brick smokestacks that still reach high into the Georgia sky. The campus is surrounded by a leafy neighborhood of wooden frame houses of various sizes, surrounded by ample lawns and plenty of shade trees. Most of these houses are empty now, but they once housed a bustling community of doctors, nurses and other Central State staff members.
One particularly striking thing about Central State today is its eclectic collection of older brick buildings: three-story structures, some built in the late 1800s, that retain their strange appeal even as vines and limbs of nearby trees make their way inside through broken and cracked windows and holes in the rooftops. It’s easy to get lost in the wabi-sabi beauty of these architectural curiosities as nature claims them, but their original purpose as places of confinement remains. Notice that the spacious high-ceilinged porches at the end of several of these buildings are enclosed with thick metal screens — and there are bars on most of the windows.
Interior photographs of the older buildings reveal banks of dead leaves accumulated in the corners of deteriorating former examination rooms. Hallways with no ceiling overhead, open to the elements and strewn with debris, reveal what the top floor of buildings such as White Hall now look like.
Generations of patients battling mental illness were cared for here, as were those with unusual personalities, quirks and the occasional young person who rebelled against society and authority. There are anecdotes about teens sent to Central State for such transgressions as smoking pot and interracial dating by well-meaning (or simply fed up?) relatives who figured their errant loved one would be easier to manage after a long round of heavy medication, shock therapy or perhaps the occasional lobotomy; after all, such procedures were more common before the age of antidepressants.
The idea of being confined to an institution where medical personnel can tinker with one’s brain, personality and all the very things that make up human individuality is disturbing on many levels, which perhaps explains why so many haunted houses devised for entertainment during Halloween are done up as asylums — with crazed “patients” and sadistic “doctors” in ghoulish makeup grasping at visitors who scream with delight and seasonal fright.
Central State stands as a quiet counterpoint to such simulacrums. It’s a real-life asylum, silent witness to all the souls who passed through for whatever reason, and those who lived and died here. Driving through or walking around, one feels a certain reverence. There are signs on some buildings such as Powell Hall, the imposing, domed, white-columned centerpiece of the grounds, asking for “quiet please.” Quiet seems natural here.
The popularity of Central State as a Halloween destination has risen in recent years, and break-ins committed by ghost hunters and thrill seekers have led to increased security. At Central State, visitors are often asked to stay off the grass by the security guards who patrol the grounds. Warnings about sinkholes are common, perhaps partly because as the campus expanded over time, graves were moved and sometimes only headstones removed to accommodate the new construction. Countless unmarked graves of past patients remain, most formerly marked by simple staves, some differentiated by numbers, others now nameless, numberless and completely anonymous. Is it any wonder the place is rumored to be haunted?
Blanche DuBois was sent to a place like this at the end of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Did she finally get the care she so desperately needed? She went willingly with the doctor who spoke to her with such respect. Blanche longed for a place to rest, to breathe, to depend on the kindness of strangers. Hopefully, for most patients who came here, Central State was just such a place. Eerie and evocative, mysterious and impressive even in its current state of decrepitude, Central State Hospital is definitely worth a visit. Like Randall McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when entering the grounds, one can’t help but feel like an outsider entering a world of true outsiders: the patients for whom this was home.
It’s said that at Halloween the veil between the living and the dead becomes very thin. Here that seems especially true as autumn sunsets occur earlier and earlier, leaves swirl to the ground and gather in the corners of convalescent dormitories, and bare tree limbs embrace the corners of long abandoned, crumbling buildings. That veil’s getting thinner all right. By Halloween, one could almost step right through it.
Photo credits, from top: Featured photo, convalescent sign, building with vines and “Quiet Please” by Nevada McPherson; interior hallway and room with table by Mandias on Flickr Creative Commons.
Originally from Georgia, Nevada McPherson lived in uptown New Orleans for several years and is now an an associate professor of Humanities at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville. She received a BA in English/Creative Writing and an MFA in Screenwriting from Louisiana State University. She has written over a dozen feature-length screenplays, one short screenplay and two graphic novels. She taught English at Nunez Community College for 18 years, attaining the rank of associate professor, and founded the Pelican d’Or Short Film Festival, serving as its director for 10 years. She also taught film studies and screenwriting at Tulane School of Continuing Studies. She is currently busy with her creative arts business and Etsy shop, Noisy Muse.