Hidden Places

Dorothea Dix property worth exploring even before it’s a park

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMarch 24, 2014 

— As plans for a city park on the Dorothea Dix property get another round of negotiations, the most common images that come to mind are the rolling hills overlooking the downtown skyline and the imposing main hospital building.

But that’s only a small part of the 325 acres that housed the state’s psychiatric hospital for well over a century. A trip to Dix offers plenty of opportunities to explore diverse sites rich in history and architecture.

Preservationists hope Raleigh will preserve the dozens of buildings spread throughout the site and adapt them to other uses. The planning process for the park has yet to begin, and Mayor Nancy McFarlane expects those decisions will take years.

But that hasn’t stopped people like Preservation North Carolina’s Myrick Howard from dreaming about the possibilities. Last year, he tossed out ideas for a boutique hotel in the main hospital building, a concert and event venue in the old chapel and apartments in some of the old dormitory.

For now though, the park is far from reality and state government uses parts of the property as office space. The rest has been frozen in time since the last patients left several years ago.

Here’s a few of the areas worth exploring in out-of-the-way corners of the Dix property:

Hospital patient cemetery: Dix psychiatric hospital patients whose families didn’t make other arrangements were buried on a hill overlooking the downtown skyline from 1859 to 1970.

Only a few of the graves have vertical headstones. The rest of the 900 graves have tiny granite markers that list only a name and date of death, and grass and dead leaves have overtaken some of them. Still, the granite markers – added by a volunteer effort in the early 1990s – are a big improvement from the crosses and numbered aluminum plates used in the past.

The cemetery is located behind the Kirby building on Umstead Drive, on the western part of the property.

Historic homes: A psychiatric hospital property might seem an unlikely spot to take a historic house tour, but Dix was home for many of its employees, and those higher up in the adminstration had grand homes built around the turn of the 20th century.

The houses reflect a variety of architectural periods, but many haven’t been well maintained by the state. The 1925 Benner house, a Craftsman bungalow, is currently boarded up.

East of the main hospital building, the Buffaloe house, or “House of Many Porches,” is a 1898 Victorian cottage with a wraparound porch. Three houses lining the road up from Western Boulevard housed the hospital’s top doctor, its gatekeeper and its superintendent.

Other houses scattered across Dix leave visitors to guess about their former residents, like the weathered home near the cemetery labeled in state property records only as “storage house.”

Dorms and outbuildings: Many of the facilities that served hospital patients don’t see much use today. Behind the main building, there’s a gym and cafeteria building. One courtyard area with a basketball hoop still has two layers of security fencing to keep patients inside.

Many of the patient dormitories are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which touts the varying architectural styles used to build them in the 1920s and ‘30s as the hospital expanded.

The buildings offer a fleeting glipse of life for the thousands of patients who passed through Dix.

Preserving them for different uses – or even simply tearing them down – will prove a massive undertaking for the city as it creates a park.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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