For centuries, The Ridges has overlooked the Hocking River and Ohio University. It began as an asylum in the late 1800s where patients could seek treatment in a world that had just begun exploring the science of mental health. It later became an economic opportunity for the Athens community and a resource for university students and faculty.
The negative stigma associated with the many asylums that were built in America after the Civil War is perpetuated by ghost stories and myths of hauntings. But, as Southeast Ohio History Center Executive Director Tom O’Grady explains, the asylums were state of the art facilities where cutting-edge treatment techniques were taught and learned by doctors from all over the world.
The Athens Lunatic Asylum opened its doors in 1874. It was a beautifulplace, O’Grady explains, with botanical gardens, greenhouses, ponds and large parks, and it served a broad range of people in need.
“It was the largest employer of Athens county for a century,” O’Grady says. “It should be nothing less in the future than what it was in the past.”
Many view the The Ridges, which closed in 1993, as an integral part of Athens’ heritage and history, which is why the university and the Athens community are attempting to preserve its integrity as conversations develop about the proposed renovations.
Shawna Bolin, associate vice president of university planning and co-chair of the Ridges Advisory Committee, says the plan was a communal effort.
“[The] Ridges Framework Plan wasn’t designed by one administrator on this campus,” Bolin says. “This was a huge collaboration between the community, city and university.”
Tentative plans to repurpose the buildings that make up the former asylum go as far back as 1989, and since then, they have evolved. Efforts have been made to decide what must be done to repair the grounds. The Ridges Framework Plan, approved by Ohio University’s Board of Trustees in 2015, incorporates all previous efforts and has been updated to ensure commitment to OU’s current academic missions and goals.
Bolin defines the process as a public and private partnership; public meetings and workshops were held at the very beginning of the process to provide community members with a sense of input on the proceedings.
After the Master Plan Committee began working with consultants from the university to refine those goals, the Ridges Advisory Committee was formed. The committee — consisting of OU administrators, the director of the Southeast Ohio History Center, the director of Engineering and Public Works, the Athens City Council president, the vice president for Finance and Administration, and the Service-Safety director — reviews plans and potential issues put forth by the Master Plan Committee. The advisory committee members play a vital role in providing feedback and reviewing plans, giving the Athens community a voice in determining some of the process.
The Ridges is made up of many different buildings and cottages, aside from the Kirkbride complex where the Kennedy Museum is now. But the Ridges also includes nearly 700 acres of land, meaning there is a lot of space available for development opportunities. Some of the proposed plans include an eco-village, an outdoor recreation center, graduate/married housing, offices, an arboretum, an outdoor classroom amphitheater and even a site for solar panels and other renewable energy features.
Those ideas are still tentative, though; Bolin says the University Planning office is still currently in the process of project studies.
“It is the deeper study and analysis about what the costs are, what the actual programs may be, where that timing and priority is in conjunction with a lot of other things,” Bolin says. “We take a deeper dive into the buildings, how you renovate them and how do you prioritize what is there.”
Recently, the university invested $300,000 in a stabilization program, which was requested by the Advisory Committee and backed by University Planning and the Master Plan Committee.
The buildings that make up The Ridges have stood in deferred maintenance for nearly 30 years, but the stabilization package ensures the buildings stay in decent condition until plans are finalized for renovations. Currently, there is no timeline for when the implementation process of the Ridges Framework Plan will begin.
The process is long and expensive, and for local historical preservationists, the pressure is on for the university to follow through on its promises. Many members of the Athens community have misgivings because of the university’s past efforts dealing with preservation.
“The community is very concerned that the university demolished two buildings that were on the national register for historic places just in the past five years,” O’Grady says, referencing the Tuberculosis Ward and Science Hall. “Both of [those actions were] against very vocal community interest.”
Although O’Grady, a member of the Ridges Advisory Committee, is keeping a keen eye on the proceedings, he remains hopeful for the future. He sees the restoration as a huge opportunity for community stewards to restore The Ridges.
Other historical preservationists have similar opinions. Tim Traxler, a member of the Southeast History Center and longtime Athens community member, stresses the importance of honoring the heritage of The Ridges.
“What’s important to me is preserving and maintaining the historic character of the place, the sense of place, the meaning of place, respect for those who built and created the place,” Traxler says.
That sentiment is echoed by George Eberts, who has worked for Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare, Athens’ current in-patient mental health treatment facility, for more than 20 years. He believes the university, the historical preservationists and others in the extended Ridges and asylum community are finally on the same page.
“We feel like our values and our hopes are shared and respected by OU,” Eberts says. “… People at OU are making more noise about preservation and reuse than they used to.”
The proposed plans have excited community members and students alike. Emily Paris, a freshman studying English, grew up in Nelsonville and believes the restoration will have a positive influence.
“[The Ridges renovation] will draw in a different demographic, not just college students, but people who are interested in the historical aspects,” Paris says.
The committees in place are now working toward understanding the assets The Ridges provides so there will be an end goal for future plans. The vision being cultivated honors and expands the original influence The Ridges provided in the Athens community.
“[The Ridges] was the largest building in America when it was built, because somebody had a vision,” O’Grady says. “We owe it to those who came before us to take what they did and complement that and enhance it if we can for the future.”