August 16, 2016

Photo Essay: 100 Years of Mental Illness at Norwalk State Hospital

I'm becoming pretty predictable.

If there's a mental hospital I can visit—abandoned, or not—I'm gonna go.

But when I do, I always think maybe they'll want to keep me there. Maybe they won't let me go back home.

For my latest jaunt to a psychiatric ward, my friend Joanna (who also introduced me to Rockhaven Sanitarium) turned me on to California's second state mental hospital, the former Norwalk, now known as Metropolitan State Hospital.

Over a century ago, when choosing a location to follow Patton State Hospital—and to help relieve some of its overcrowding—the state government originally considered Beverly Hills.

But Beverly Hills has always had a way of dodging infrastructure and other facilities—like the freeway or the subway—that might bring property values down.

So a parcel of over 300 acres was chosen in an area then known as "North Walk" for its "country air."

The hospital started taking in patients 100 years ago, when the Imperial Highway was just a cow path and had to be improved for arrivals by horse and carriage.

At the time, I don't think many were too concerned with handling departures.

Norwalk might've been a "cow town" in the first decades of the 20th century, but there were as many as 1990 oil wells in Santa Fe Springs, the next town over.

At the peak of the oil drilling, the Norwalk hospital was surrounded on three sides by derricks.

By 1923, oil activity had slowed down, and Norwalk continued on as a self-sustaining community...

...whose patients farmed, raised cattle, and performed other (many agricultural) tasks to keep the hospital running.

It wasn't really "work therapy"—it was just work.

Nothing can provide free labor like a bunch of captive patients who are physically able but mentally unstable.

Even today, although some buildings have been demolished, Metropolitan State Hospital is like its own little town.

Many of the structures are from the early 20th century, as well as from the 1920s Southern California building boom...

...and the 1947 Post-War building program, which gave rise to a new 504-bed Receiving & Treatment Center in 1954.

Overcrowding was relieved tremendously in the 1950s with the development of psychotropic drugs (like Thorazine and lithium), which meant people with even severe mental problems could actually get better—and hospitalization didn't have to be a life sentence.

Now, there are lots of campus buildings standing in disuse, their windows boarded up.

No longer do patients have to sleep in beds that have been "stacked," surrounded on every side by other beds. And they don't have to sleep on the floor anymore, either.

And now that they're all adults—the children's ward having closed a few years ago—most of them can move about freely within the fenced-in campus perimeter, with restrictions.

After all, nowadays those who are admitted to "Metro" aren't just mental "defectives," as they were once called. Many of them have some criminal record. Almost half of them are incompetent to stand trial. Almost as many are considered a danger to themselves or to others—without having already committed a crime.

Given its 100 years of history, Metropolitan State Hospital (like Patton) took on the task of creating an on-site museum to tell stories and display some of the artifacts that have been collected over the years.

The museum is located in a 1920s-era residence, probably used by a doctor and his family.

So far, most of its visitors have been from the community or from other hospital facilities. One can assume that anyone who works at Metropolitan probably just wants to go home after their shift is over.

Some of the archives include an admissions system used to create nameplates...

...and putting names of those committed into the registry.

There are vintage academic texts, other scientific and educational support materials, and equipment... an antique cork press (for corking pharmaceutical bottles)...

...a welder...

...and, of course, an electroshock therapy machine.

Because a greater percentage of Metropolitan's population is now of a forensic nature—and the hospital doesn't even accept people who are voluntarily admitted—security is of paramount importance.

Long gone are the days of the "camisole restraint," involuntary sterilization...

...and the freezing cold or boiling hot hydrotherapy confinement techniques.

The facility is considered low security (compared to the prison-like operations at Patton), and it doesn't accept patients who've been convicted of violent crimes like murder or sex offenses or who have a history of setting fires or escaping. But it still must provide protection for its staffers, who've been frequently subjected to violent patient outbursts and attacks.

While patients may pose a threat to the staff (even if they weren't violent before they were committed), they themselves aren't entirely safe while they're "institutionalized"—not from each other, and not from their caregivers.

Poor use of restraints, mis-prescribed medications, and negligence have all led to patient deaths that would've otherwise been preventable. One female psychiatric patient died in 2009 after her neck was somehow mysteriously broken, while a nurse keeping watch nearby slept through the whole thing.

Some manage to make their escape—at least, to the morgue—by committing suicide. But even if someone were to walk off the grounds of Metro and go AWOL (which some do), they may never escape the thing that sent them there in the first place.

Then again, at least they would escape the treatments, which are sometimes worse than the disease.

For a peek inside Norwalk Hospital in the 1970s, there was a black-and-white documentary film that was shot there called Hurry Tomorrow, directed by Richard Cohen and Kevin Rafferty.

Here's a clip:

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Patton State Forensic Mental Hospital for the Criminally Insane
Photo Essay: The Scary Dairy
Photo Essay: Lanterman Developmental Center, Pomona, Haunted & Closing
Photo Essay: Rancho Los Amigos, Abandoned County Poor Farm, Downey (Exterior)
Photo Essay: Retreat to Rockhaven Sanitarium


  1. Metropolitan state hospital is a place that the attorney general needs to go ans really see what goes on thier as well as how they strap patients to a steal bed and inject them with an unknow drug that has my son having uncontrolable convulsions,unexplained jaw movements,destroy his phisical strength,arms shake uncontrolable ect............BRAIN SHOCK TREATMENT,leaving patients mentally unreachable when trying to talk to them.This place is in need of a serious inspection regarding what drugs and machinery they use to destroy patents without having no remorse after treatment of the patentents outcome in any form or fashion.This place is like PILGRAM MENTAL STATE HOSPITAL IN LONG ISLAND NY EXTREMLY HORRIBLE AND THE ATTORNEY GENERAL TO STEP IN AND LOOK AT WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON IN THAT PLACE.i ONLY REQUEST THIS BECAUSE OF WHAT THEY DID TO MY SON IN THE 2 MONTHS TIME FRAM THAT MY SON WAS THIER THEY PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY DESTROYED MY SONS LIFE.USING MANY MALE STAFF WORKERS TO PHYSICALLY STRAP MY SON TO A STEEL BED FRAM BOLTED TO THE CEMENT.You can trust and bielieve me i will be going to the ACLU TO SEE AND INFORM THEM ABOUT ALL PATENTENTS THIER HAVE NO CIVIL RIGHTS NOR ANY RIGHTS FOR THAT MATTER.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I didn't know they had a museum which is open to the public.