Lakeshore Mental Institution's Superintendent Talks About His Unusual Campus

Lee Thomas is a thin, courtly gentleman whose office has a grand Victorian fireplace and one of the best views in Knoxville. He'll enjoy it for only a few more days.

He's the last superintendent of Lakeshore Mental Health Institute on Lyons View, which closes forever on June 30, after operating there, by various other names, since Grover Cleveland's first term. Thomas' corner office is on the second floor of the administration building, the old brick building with castellated ramparts suitable for archers.

It's all that remains of what once looked like a long castle, with turrets and parapets. Once known as Lyons View Asylum, its years taking care of the mentally ill from all around the region saw ups and downs, success stories that came with effective treatments and progressive innovation, but also some horrors. During Thomas' 23 years here, Lakeshore has enjoyed a generally good reputation. But the era of the large mental institution is waning.

Lakeshore once housed 3,200 patients; last week, just 11 remained. Several sat in rocking chairs on the back porch of the modern residence hall known as Choto.

Its most unusual building is its oldest. In function, the Administration Building is a no-nonsense sort of place, with white-painted walls and no fancy furniture or paneling, but several of its Victorian amenities are intact. The stately wooden staircase, striking even though the fire marshal has required it to be boxed in, connects the three floors with unusual round windows for sunlight. Once all the rooms had fireplaces, and several still do. At both ends of the second floor are elaborately carved Victorian mantels of dark wood, perhaps mahogany. The third-floor fireplaces are less fancy, but still striking, tiled with glazed terra cotta. The ceilings are very high, more than 10 feet, even though most are covered with modern institutional acoustic tiles. Even the windows are taller than most modern ceilings.

In a reception area, three broad steps still lead up to a door that looks like it's been sealed for decades; it once led out to a screened veranda with that river view that looks like a painter's fantasy. This hilltop inspired Scottish-born painter James Cameron, who came here in the 1850s to paint the first known Knoxville-area landscapes. A walk on Lakeshore's greenway only hints at it.

Lyons View was once a long complex of buildings of the same style, and some have raised questions about whether this survivor is the original nucleus, or just part of the later wings. The marble cornerstone argues in favor of antiquity: "ERECTED A.D. 1884," it says, two years before the institution formally opened. The first name on the stone is that of Gov. W.B. Bate, former Confederate general. Its designer, as listed, was W.H. Cusack, Massachusetts-born architect and painter who also designed buildings at Sewanee's University of the South.

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In the second-floor conference room hang portraits of several of the last 126 years' superintendents. When Thomas' portrait joined the others a few weeks ago, his end date was already inscribed: 1989-2012. "I've been here 23 years, waiting for my portrait to go on that wall," he says. "And now it'll be there one month."

Changing attitudes toward mental illness, fiscal belt-tightening, and the introduction of effective behavior-modifying drugs have outmoded big mental institutions.

"Maybe things are such that we don't need these big old dinosaurs anymore," Thomas says.

But it's a dinosaur with fine bones. "I've been very fortunate to be here, and work in such a beautiful place," Thomas says. From several angles the broad, green campus could pass for a college.

Thomas is 65, and the final closure of Lakeshore is coinciding with his retirement. Three public-health offices will remain on the campus: a mental retardation office, a state licensure office, and a little bit of Lakeshore: no more patients, but 14 of the 360 mental-health staffers will man a placement office.

The Administration Building is not necessarily the only one worth saving. Lakeshore was once an almost-independent village, with its own power supply, its own laundry, its own food service, its own cobbler shop. The tall brick smokestack of the old steam plant hasn't been used in at least 30 years.

Five or six buildings on campus, long abandoned, are overdue for demolition, Thomas says, and it would take a great deal of imagination to argue otherwise.

But more than a dozen others have been kept up well. The state decision to close it so abruptly came as a surprise, and some buildings have new roofs. The freestanding "cottages" are much bigger than the average suburban rancher, close to 6,000 square feet, each once accommodated about 25 patients.

Besides the 1884 edifice, the chapel, built in the 1950s of long, flat stones, may be Lakeshore's most talked-about building. Its pews would seat maybe 150, but it's been empty for about three years. The ceiling's lined with long planks of knotty pine, and a small stained-glass window still glows in the summer sun.

Outside, concrete benches and fading sidewalks, noticeable only when you're right on them, trace a geometrical garden area. Nearby is the swimming pool, unused for several years.

It's easy to picture lots of lovely things happening here: public gardens, a suburban performing-arts center, a retreat of some sort. But it's a dilemma; Who will own all of this isn't nailed down yet. There's some legal opinion that it will belong to the city. And there's strong sentiment in favor of keeping Lakeshore public, without selling off part of it for private ownership or profit-making interests. It's hard to imagine a purely public use for some of the large institutional buildings and houses, except as a college. But the city's interested; the University of Tennessee's interested.

Thomas is no longer in charge of this place after next week. "I am interested in saving this facility, if possible, in a way that has some connection to the public," he says. "After more than 100 years of trying to treat the mentally ill, I would like to see some legacy, remembering what we did here." m