How Lakeshore Helped Create Bearden

Now preparing to close, the mental institution was once an object of civic pride

Three Knoxville institutions are celebrating their 125th birthdays this year: the public library, the News Sentinel, and Lakeshore Mental Health Institute. Lakeshore will likely close after its 126th.

Just after I finished reading that news in the morning paper, I left Pete's, and heard shouting that sounded at first like an Occupier's chant. Down on Clinch I found a particularly scruffy citizen raving at the disappointing world, using some curse words even Jim Dykes stays away from, laced with liberal random racial slurs. He sounded angry and dangerous, as if it were all directed at some particularly despicable individual. But he was walking alone. He was a schizophrenic, I suppose, and he wasn't the last one I saw that morning. The Veterans' Day parade was coming up, and lots of unfamiliars were afoot.

It seemed like punctuation to the story of the closing of Lakeshore. We've been seeing more of the mentally ill in our streets, probably, than ever before in our history, and with further closings of public facilities, maybe we'll see more.

It's a common complaint about downtown, of course. But whenever you see a madman raving in the street, you should thank him. It's the result of policy. You, the taxpayer, are saving money on the medication and supervision he needs.

Lakeshore's closing wasn't that much of a surprise, I guess. There was a move to close East Tennessee's oldest mental-health facility almost 20 years ago, and in recent decades it's been fading from view. Today it's responsible for only 90 patients, one-30th of the 2,800 who were housed there in the 1960s.

Already, if your hear the word Lakeshore, it's most often in reference to the popular park of trees, fields, and rolling hills enjoyed by hundreds of joggers and walkers and ball players daily.

There's an argument that interning mental-health patients in a central institution isn't as good for them as placing them in smaller facilities, in some cases on an out-patient basis, around the community. Large institutions can lead to large abuses, large cases of neglect. Lakeshore, or as it was known before 1976, Eastern State, might seem a textbook example. It had its problems over the years, some of them severe.

In the early 1960s, the institution was hailed as a national model for its innovative "village" approach, placing some patients in small cottages on the periphery. But a 1971 inspection yielded extremes of unsanitary conditions, inhumane detention cells, drug abuse.

Though things did improve, the memory of Eastern State's excesses, which encouraged the name change to Lakeshore, added to the evidence that maybe this big-box approach might not be ideal. Putting that many people with mental problems in one place was seen as bad for morale, both for the patients, who sometimes seemed more like convicts, and the people who worked with them.

Then again, when all the problems are in one basket, it makes very big news. It was a state legislator who blew the whistle on Eastern State, and state governors began the habit of making unannounced visits just to check in. It was front-page news for months. Johnny Cash caught wind of it, and did a free show there, in the Eastern State gym, with the Carter family and Carl Perkins.

The reason it was such a big deal was that Eastern State was a large public institution, serving 37 counties, and that it was run by the state. Would anything comparable in a small, private setting be something that would make front-page headlines that got the governor's attention? When mental health care becomes more private, cases of abuse may become more private, too.

I don't know the answer. Some cynics suspect the mostly upscale Bearden area has been quietly trying to shake off this mental-hospital stigma for years, and is finally succeeding. But we should remember that the institution about to close has long been central to the community. In fact, Bearden would not be named Bearden if not for the fact that there was a state mental hospital here.

It wasn't so central, 125 years ago, "four miles from Knoxville," as it was described in those days, and on no beaten paths. Post Civil-War Knoxville was a tightly defined but rapidly growing industrial city of about 20,000, all of whom lived more or less downtown. Among them were hundreds of earnest progressive reformers, and the city campaigned to be the site of the state's second publicly funded mental-health institution, what was promised in 1873 to be "the most modern asylum in the country." After buying the choice riverfront property from the Lyons family and seeming to offer funding, an abstemious Legislature withdrew it, and by 1875 Nashville factions were trying to sell the property back. For years Knoxville legislators and lobbyists fought hard to keep the project alive, and the one who finally succeeded in appropriating money for it was a former mayor of Knoxville. To this country community four miles west of Knoxville, long before it had restaurants or nice neighborhoods or even a country club, something as important as a state mental institution put the place on the map. In gratitude they renamed Erin for the Republican legislator who made it possible. His name was Marcus DeLafayette Bearden.

Lyons View Asylum, as it was known to a few generations, has a lot of history, maybe more than most. It plays a role in a couple of major American novels. And though it's almost certainly not the place where Tennessee Williams' troubled sister Rose got her ruinous lobotomy, as stubborn online sources insist, Williams referred to "Lion's View" obliquely and out of context, in his play Suddenly Last Summer.

It's a relief to report that whatever happens to the site, it won't be a fight for overworked preservationists. By the contract between the city and the state, the city of Knoxville is obliged to preserve the original 1886 administration building, the striking red-brick building with tall Victorian windows and castellated walls.