List could help save Central State buildings

Of the four historic sites in Middle Georgia that were named to the Places In Peril list, Central State Hospital in Milledgeville may be the most significant.

The list, published each year by the Georgia Trust For Historic Preservation, focuses on 10 places of historical significance in the state that are most in need of preservation and restoration.

Established in 1842, the hospital was the state’s first psychiatric facility. It once was the largest mental hospital in America and the second-largest in the world.

At one point, the hospital covered 1,000 acres and was home to more than 13,000 patients.

Two of the buildings on campus — the Powell building, which serves as home for the hospital’s administration, and the old train depot, which now serves as a museum — are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But several other buildings with their own historical significance are no longer in use and are falling into disrepair. Deterioration is imminent without immediate restoration, the Georgia Trust said.

“Of all the places (on the Places In Peril list), Central State is probably the most challenging,” said Mark C. McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust. “Its historic significance is so great that it had to be taken on. ... There are 15 buildings on the campus, large brick institutional buildings, that have a high degree of historical and architectural significance. People are very aware (of the deterioration), and there’s been a lot of caring and concern about the buildings.”

With the state of Georgia facing budget issues, maintaining the buildings isn’t the state’s first priority, since its money has to be concentrated on patient care.

But making the Places In Peril list could be a way of alleviating that problem and bring funding to restore the building from sources other than taxpayers.

“Obviously, this is a very positive thing,” said Kristie Swink, a spokeswoman for the Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities, which oversees Central State. “It allows us to get private funding to do things to the buildings. It also opens people’s eyes that Central State has a lot of historical significance. People who are interested can now donate money to help preserve the buildings.”

Kari Brown, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said that effort begins in Milledgeville. “This is an opportunity for us to interact with the community and showcase our history and our importance not only to Milledgeville but to the state of Georgia,” she said. “We don’t have the state funds for cosmetic use on the buildings. The money needs to be spent on our clients.”

The hospital currently is home to about 700 patients, a far cry from the nearly 12,000 it served during the 1960s, Brown said. It still serves 23 counties in the midstate and is one of seven different mental health facilities the state operates.

One prospective partnership with another venerable Milledgeville institution may offer a solution for Central State. The hospital has been negotiating with Georgia College & State University about some sort of partnership.

Georgia College president Dorothy Leland said via e-mail that the university is proposing to reposition the core of the Central State campus as a Center of Excellence for Rural Health Care.

Under the proposal, the center would focus on several areas: as a training site for rural health care delivery with a special focus on remote and interactive technology; as a home for continuing education related to rural health care and as a rural health care policy think-tank; and as a place for clinical research related to rural health issues and services.

Leland said the plan would help the smaller, rural counties that surround Baldwin County that are underserved with health care services as well as bring new professional jobs to the area. Having the hospital on the Places In Peril list brings greater statewide recognition to the campus’ historical significance, she said.

The plan would not only involve Georgia College but other colleges across the state, Leland said. It could operate as a partnership that’s similar to one the state entered into with the Medical College of Georgia for the state’s mental health facility in Augusta.

Meanwhile, despite the age of the buildings, Central State is still a key to mental health treatment in Georgia, Swink said.

“There’s no thoughts of building something new,” she said. “We view Central State as one of our premier facilities.”