Chestnut Lodge in Rockville. (Montgomery History)
Columnist

In 1963, a psychiatrist named John S. Kafka made a comment during a staff meeting at Chestnut Lodge, the mental hospital in Rockville where he worked. A Hollywood film crew was in attendance, soaking up the atmosphere. Later, one of the actors buttonholed the doctor.

Warren Beatty engaged me in some conversation after the meeting, but I did not even know who he was,” Kafka wrote in an email to Answer Man. “Some student nurses then very excitedly asked me about what he said and could not believe that I did not know this famous person.”

Beatty may have been a celebrity to student nurses, but Chestnut Lodge was itself famous: famous in the world of people who treat maladies of the mind. Beatty was there to prepare for his role in “Lilith,” the film based on J.R. Salamanca’s novel and the subject of last week’s column.

The mental hospital’s founder was Ernest L. Bullard, a country doctor from Wisconsin who had run that state’s hospital for the insane. Bullard was determined to open his own institution, after becoming irritated by the way politicians meddled in his oversight duties.

“The only people I’ve ever seen him get really mad at as patients have been alcoholic congressmen,” his son Dexter M. Bullard later wrote. “I’ve seen him literally throw one out the front door.”

The elder Bullard purchased what had been Rockville’s Woodlawn Hotel, built in 1890 to entice Washingtonians to leave the hot and diseased air of the city for the cool, healthy breezes of Montgomery County. Redubbed Chestnut Lodge — after the many trees on its grounds — the hospital received its first patients in 1910.

In the hospital’s early years, patients were free to walk the bucolic grounds and stroll into Rockville. The staff-to-patient ratio was high — three-to-one in 1950 — a benefit that was reflected in the price tag. In 1950, the cost for a month’s stay was $850, three times the median national monthly family income. Many patients stayed for months. Some stayed for years.

In the 1930s, control of the hospital passed to Dexter M. Bullard. The younger Bullard thought that the precepts of Sigmund Freud were the keys to treating patients. Helping in this effort was Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, an acclaimed psychoanalyst who had fled her native Germany to escape persecution by the Nazis.

Among Fromm-Reichmann’s patients was a young woman suffering from schizophrenia named Joanne Greenberg, who, under the pen name Hannah Green, later published “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” a novel based on her time at Chestnut Lodge. (“It was a horrible place and a wonderful place, but it was the place I should have been,” Greenberg later said. “I got well there.”)

Some of the horrific treatments common at other mental hospitals — electroshock therapy and lobotomies — were not employed at Chestnut Lodge. Instead, residents engaged in intense psychotherapy, each under the care of two psychiatrists. Agitated patients were sometimes “packed”: wrapped tightly in cold wet sheets and strapped to their beds.

As understanding of the biological and chemical causes of mental illness grew, Chestnut Lodge’s unquestioning embrace of Freudian psychoanalysis came to look dated. Could debilitating — and occasionally dangerous — psychosis really be treated by talking about your mother?

In 1989, The Washington Post’s Sunday Magazine published a story on Chestnut Lodge written by Sandra G. Boodman . The article recounted the hospital’s history and its important place in Freudian thought and practice. But it also brought to light malpractice lawsuits filed against Chestnut Lodge by patients who claimed they had gotten worse there, not better.

The gist was that the doctors were reluctant to prescribe the kinds of pharmaceuticals that were revolutionizing the treatment of maladies such as schizophrenia and depression.

The Bullard family sold the hospital and adjoining property in 1996. The lodge closed in 2001. In 2009, the 19th-century main building burned under mysterious circumstances. The white clapboard cottage that the Bullards built on the grounds for Fromm-Reichmann to live and work in still stands. It’s owned by Peerless Rockville, a preservation group.

Another memory of the psychiatric hospital: Thirty-one years ago, Beth Rogers of Bethesda was looking for a venue for her wedding. She had heard good things about Rockville’s Glenview Mansion, which she confused with Chestnut Lodge.

Wrote Beth: “[I] went in there and was greeted by a bunch of people in white jackets who looked at me quizzically when I said I wanted to get married there.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.