Studying a Relic of a Painful Past

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005

Doris Morgenstern Wachsler grew up among the people society called lunatics, idiots and maniacs. Within the walls of Crownsville State Hospital, their howling and sobbing went on without cease.

Wachsler was the daughter of Jacob Morgenstern, the Austrian immigrant who, in the years after World War II, occupied the superintendent's mansion overlooking the red-brick fortress once known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane in central Anne Arundel County.

"It was scary for me when I was a little girl," Wachsler recalled. "Both of my parents worked at the hospital. I would go home to the hospital."

Crownsville State Hospital sits empty now, shuttered since July 2004. The rusting window grates that once held patients in keep trespassers out.

As sordid as life was at the hospital, particularly for blacks, there is interest in retaining those lonely buildings and preserving the ornate murals, painted by Crownsville patients as art therapy, that still cover many walls and window panes.

A small group of former Crownsville employees, black leaders and historians is quietly monitoring deliberations over the empty facility, hoping this emblem of African American toil, artistry and suffering will not fall to the wrecking ball.

To those who see Crownsville as hallowed ground, the arrival of a film crew this summer to shoot a horror movie called "Crazy Eights" and featuring former porn star Traci Lords was not an encouraging sign.

"The land was purchased for African American people. They built the buildings. They raised the food," said George Phelps Jr., an elder statesman in the Annapolis black community who spent years monitoring conditions at Crownsville. "Now it seems like they should have some say in the usage of the property today."

The story of the defunct hospital spans generations of evolving race relations in Maryland. A glimpse inside hospital archives affords a grim view of the sort of treatment a black mental patient could expect in the days before integrated health care.

From wartime till the 1950s, Crownsville was the most crowded, understaffed mental hospital in Maryland. Children sometimes slept two to a bed, or on mattresses on the floor. Photographs from the era show patients sprawled on the concrete floor for lack of chairs. People disappeared into Crownsville's back wards, sometimes for decades.

"You were more likely to leave Crownsville through death than discharge," said Paul Lurz, an employee at Crownsville from 1964 to the end and now its unofficial historian.

Alone among Maryland's mental hospitals, Crownsville housed the criminally insane, the mentally ill and retarded, adults and children along with drunks and people with syphilis and tuberculosis, all on one campus. Adults and children dwelled in the same wards.

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