Iron Cove: Week 172

Bridge over the Iron Cove walkway: Sydney, Australia

Iron Cove is home to one of the most wretched activities in the world: jogging.

When asked if I wanted to join a jog around Iron Cove one Saturday morning I replied, “only if I can ride my bike.” As soon as I saw the faces of the sweaty, miserable hordes of joggers I knew I had made the right decision.

Is it a coincidence then that right next to one of the most popular torture routes in Inner West Sydney is the site of a former insane asylum? I think not.

Completed in 1885, the Callan Park Mental Hospital sprawls over a massive 100 acre plot along the Parramatta River. It was built at a time when new ‘discoveries’ in treatment were being made in the United States. Just as Pennsylvania influenced the rehabilitation of convicts in the 19th century, a Quaker physician named Dr Kirkbride influenced mental health treatment around the world, Iron Cove included.

Old greenhouse at the Callan Park Mental Hospital: Sydney, Australia

Dr Kirkbride was one of the first advocates for humane treatment and reasoned that patients, “are not disabled from appreciating books…or enjoying many intellectual and physical comforts.” He also held the first gathering of professional psychiatrists, which became the forerunner to the American Psychiatric Association.

I even found a blog dedicated to documenting the remaining asylums built in the US during the Kirkbride era. As Ethan McElroy explains:

Once state-of-the-art mental healthcare facilities, Kirkbride buildings have long been relics of an obsolete therapeutic method known as Moral Treatment. In the latter half of the 19th century, these massive structures were conceived as ideal sanctuaries for the mentally ill and as an active participant in their recovery. Careful attention was given to every detail of their design to promote a healthy environment and convey a sense of respectable decorum. Placed in secluded areas within expansive grounds, many of these insane asylums seemed almost palace-like from the outside. But growing populations and insufficient funding led to unfortunate conditions, spoiling their idealistic promise.

Garden path at the Callan Park Mental Hospital: Sydney, Australia

While I don’t know if Kirkbride ever stepped foot in Sydney, the Callan Park Mental Hospital was designed according to his views and the first block of neo-classical sandstone buildings was named after him. When the last patients transferred out of the Kirkbride Complex in 1994 the facilities were renovated for the Sydney Collage of Arts. The numerous other buildings within the grounds are in various stages of development for use as cultural, historical, non-profit, and mental health facilities.

“So, if you hate running,” my friends asked when they finally caught up with me, “how are you going to do the City to Surf?”

The City to Surf is an annual race in Sydney that is the largest running event in the southern hemisphere and one of the largest in the world. At 14 km, it’s about 12.5km longer than I have ever run before.

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “I’m definitely not planning on running.”

About: Iron Cove

About: Callan Park

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