The Lunatic Asylum : BC's Riverview / Essondale

Photographs and words by Cat Ashbee

We don’t use the term “Lunatic Asylum” anymore.  It’s easier for us to think about something if we clean up the words we use to talk about it when the subject has dark and disturbing associations.  
Canada’s history of the treatment of mental illness is just as unsettling as the mental picture you may conjure, and helping the mentally ill with the medical system doesn’t go back as far as you may think.  It was only in 1872 that the first treatment facility opened in BC in Victoria.  They implemented leg irons and confinement practices and ‘padded walls’, which were padded with straw.  Treatment was largely confinement and punishment.  Not much was understood of the brain back then and not so long ago. In 1904, land East of Vancouver was purchased and destined to become a “Hospital for the mind”.  For a time the developing grounds were named Essondale Hospital until renamed Riverview in 1965.

With the new implementation of treating “the insane” in their own hospitals, they also saw new advancements such as Opium and Chloral Hydrate use and experimented with “Hydrotherapy”.  Researching early treatments such as these brings forth so many vastly different descriptions, depending on who is sharing the information and what part of the history they are trying to write.   

That sinking feeling as we peer into the past

That sinking feeling as we peer into the past

 

The grounds at Riverview have had many buildings and wards over the years and the first facility built opened in 1913.  Later named West Lawn.  This is by far my favourite structure and it still stands today, although just barely.

West Lawn was built to house and treat 480 male patients.  By the end of the first year of operation, nearly a thousand resided.

West Lawn was built to house and treat 480 male patients.  By the end of the first year of operation, nearly a thousand resided.

 

West Lawn was closed in 1983 but select areas were used by the film industry and still are.  Most of it is in such an advanced state of decay that it is unsafe.  The upper floors are skeletal and crumbling and asbestos insulation falls and creeps with the continuing decomposition.  The ceiling and roof collapse in areas and the floor barely exists.

Nothing really mattress anymore

Nothing really mattress anymore

 

Being deserted for thirty years and virtually untouched with the exception of the elements, the place feels like it has a tortured soul of it’s own.  The slow decay over time has created a twisted, warped, and indescribable scene.

"Death is but a door; time is but a window. I'll be back" -The last words of Vigo the Carpathian in 1610 (as told by Ray in Ghostbusters 2)

"Death is but a door; time is but a window. I'll be back" -The last words of Vigo the Carpathian in 1610 (as told by Ray in Ghostbusters 2)

 


The once state of the art facility now sits, as of this writing, living and growing as all the elemental chemical reactions create what I see as the ultimate work of art collaboration between nature and man. The massive iron anti-suicide staircase that was built like an impenetrable cage to traverse the floors looks even more menacing as time corrodes.

Iron barriers to prevent distraught residents from plunging to their demise down the stairwells, it was also like a cage restraining death itself in its core.

Iron barriers to prevent distraught residents from plunging to their demise down the stairwells, it was also like a cage restraining death itself in its core.

 

In a centre for medical practices that a lot of society seems to have a hard time facing and talking about, the rooms and halls appear physically how many people view it’s history.  Decay and deterioration is a part of life. It is unavoidable and essential in this cycle we are a part of.

"Life, uh, uh, finds a way" -Dr Ian Malcolm (Jurassic Park)

"Life, uh, uh, finds a way" -Dr Ian Malcolm (Jurassic Park)

 

Until it falls to the ground for whatever reason the future brings, the West Lawn building remains my favourite architectural structure on the planet.  Closed in 1983 and virtually untouched since, it is fenced off and boarded up and heavily patrolled.  
Rot In Place, my dearly decrepit.❤️

One by one, the fixtures hung

One by one, the fixtures hung

 

The cemetery at Riverview still remains.  Flat stones mark many of the sites where patients, staff, and others were buried.  As a person that appreciates cemeteries more than your average human, the graves at Riverview appear unremarkable at a glance.  There is, however, an interesting resident that requires explanation beyond the absolutely vague and simple recessed lettering.  ‘JANE DOE / DIED UNKNOWN”

Cryptic...

Cryptic...

 

Lacking the year of birth, which is common among the other grave markers, Jane is also missing her year of death.  Also absent is her real name.  When I first discovered the stone, I thought about the lack of information and any scenario I created in my mind was dark and sad.  Until I found her story, I was convinced Jane Doe had a tragic story to tell.  Perhaps she still does, because the origins of her acquisition are buried and lost. This body, Jane Doe, was the educational skeleton that they used at the facility.  They layed her remains to rest in April of 2012 after her years of service at Riverview.  

Many have entered, few ever left

Many have entered, few ever left

 

It’s no wonder that Riverview is a hot spot for dark tourism.  Doorways with the ominous feeling of the one way trip many took, the fascination with the controversial treatment of long ago, and the unsuccessful recoveries throughout the century of it’s existence, bring people from all over to see and feel for themselves.  Crease Clinic, which still stands and is maintained, was built in 1934, expanded in 1949 and housed a surgical centre.  The controversial sterilization of patients, lobotomies, shock treatment, convulsive therapies, drug administration, and experimental methods of rehabilitation were practiced here.  Underground tunnels were implemented between Crease and other structures. Countless stories float around about fires, rampant tuberculosis, suicides, violent incidents, and unexplainable deaths.  It doesn’t help that the notorious serial killer Robert Pickton’s pig farm was about 5Km away.  
They have filmed, and continue to film, movies and tv shows at the Riverview grounds.  Peering through shattered windows into abandoned rooms, hearing the many odd and unexplainable noises of the decaying buildings, and feeling the general sense of a place like this is otherworldly to experience.  Despite the attempts to 'develop' the land, the historic and fascinating buildings still stand. Some still in use and some as a reminder of the past. That short existence of progress and exploration of the mind and brain.
In the words of a good friend of mine:
"For thirteen billion years, I was dead. Took a short break to create. Soon enough, I'll go back to bed."
-Ken Chinn
Aka Mr. Chi Pig (SNFU)
Ashes

West Lawn from the back. Rot In Place, my dearly decrepit.

West Lawn from the back. Rot In Place, my dearly decrepit.

Ashbee