George Eberts, a part-time assistant in the astronomy department and expert on the Athens Mental Hospital, worked the night shift at the Ridges before its closure. He was hired for this shift because of his CPR certification and other requirements for the late-night hour.
“We had patients in the East Wing hallways, so the coolest and oldest and most decrepit, if you will, part of the building was abandoned and sat there completely vacant for, like, almost 10 years before we left,” Eberts said. “And the reason for that is because it had never been renovated.”
Since the Ridges closed down in 1993, the infrastructure has deteriorated from years of vacancy. Broken windows stare out from buildings that house little more than asbestos and other unsafe conditions. Many students view breaking into the lonesome buildings as a challenge, so vandalism is a constant concern.
Thus began the renovations to preserve this historical monument and the stories it encompasses.
Haunted legends, a storied past and the Ridges’ historic architecture continue to evolve alongside the goals and renovations set up by Ohio University.
“So, being bored in the middle of the night, I’d wait for an hour and a half for the next program to start. I could go walk around the old part,” Eberts said. “It was cool because I could see the moonlight come through the branches of the trees and the bars on the windows, and I could walk around all by myself in the middle of the night which I occasionally did, and I never got haunted.”
In the 1800s Levi T. Scofield, a Civil War veteran, bought the plot on which the Ridges would later be built for around $57,000. According to university records, Scofield constructed the buildings based on the Kirkbride design, named after Thomas Kirkbride, who advocated for building mental hospitals that promoted recovery and healing.
This particular architectural style utilizes ventilation systems that easily transfer heat and air conditioning through tunnels. The system uses a bat-like structure in which the main entrance sits in the front and, as the building expands toward the back, it branches outward on both sides.
Following Scofield’s design decision, construction began for the massive structure known as the Athens Lunatic Asylum.
Furthermore, Kirkbride is credited not only for the asylum’s design, but also for its methods, largely focused on rehabilitation.
The Ridges property was outlined with elaborate gardens, ponds and other forms of nature to promote relaxation and healing habits. The complex had disconnected exterior buildings for patients to do work such as laundry, farming and other chores that were said to help mental and physical health. Eberts said patients who were capable of using heavy machinery were not released because they were needed to keep the asylum running smoothly.
This next chapter in the Ridges’ history is perhaps the most well-known. In the early 20th century, anyone who did not follow social norms was considered insane. Rebel teens, veterans with PTSD, mothers with postpartum depression and women who would not submit to their husbands were among those frequently admitted to mental institutions. This led to overcrowding, and although extra cottages were built, there was not enough space. As patients continued to be admitted, proper hygiene and adequate care quickly deteriorated.
The 1950s brought new drugs to the world of psychology and there was no need for the cruel procedures many doctors and psychologists thought were helping the patients, such as tight restraints and straight jackets. They also eliminated methods for subduing patients like hydro-shock therapy, lobotomies and water therapy.
With each historic period, the Ridges changed, but what stays steadfast is the legends and mystery of this historic building and the residents who have left their handprints in the walls.
The first was Billy Milligan, a serial rapist who was the first American to plead insanity based on multiple personality disorder. Milligan was diagnosed with over 20 personalities and stood trial for the 1977 rape of three women on The Ohio State University campus.
While Milligan was known for his life, another former patient, Margaret Schilling, is remembered more for her death.
Schilling was a patient during the 1970s, a time of construction and renovation. While several workers were renovating a normally locked and abandoned section of the complex, she snuck inside. When the workers finished, they locked the door — with Schilling still inside. Thomas O’Grady, professor of astronomy at Ohio University and executive director of the Southeast Ohio History Center, said Schilling must not have wanted to escape, as she could have broken a window or called for help.
“It doesn’t look like she wanted to be saved. There’s no indication that she did,” O’Grady said.
Eventually she removed her clothing and died. Schilling’s legend has more to do with what happened after her death, however, as her remains created a stain that to this day cannot be erased, no matter how much it is scrubbed. Eberts and O’Grady agree there are many non-paranormal reasons for why the stain remains, but that does not stop the legend from continuing. Moreover, there are many who feel Schilling deserves better than this legend.
“She still has family in this area, and after all these years the only thing people know about poor Margaret is she’s a stain,” O’Grady said.
The Ridges is more than a structure to many Athens residents. These stories and legends have become a part of who they are, which is why O’Grady and many other community members are so focused on preservation as well as renovation.
This preservation has already begun with the Konneker Center, the Child Development Center (CDC) and the Kennedy Museum of Art. The CDC was originally a separate barn used for horses, but it is now a building where OU education majors can receive in-class experience working with children.
The Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs is also housed on the Ridges property. Its offices are in one of the exterior cottages, with classroom space in the Kirkbride building. The Kennedy Museum of Art stands in the main entrance of the Ridges, one of the few locations open to the public.
One of the complex’s newest additions came with the demolition of the Tuberculosis ward in 2013. Many Athens residents were hurt by the lack of compassion for the architecture and history of the ward, but the university administration said the amount of break-ins and other problems were cause for demolition.
O’Grady was one of those strongly opposed to the demolition. He said he had hoped the university would offer alternatives, such as more security, rather than abolishing the structure.
“Places matter, and your identity, who you are, is framed by your genetics and your family and the people you grow up around and the place you grow up, and the place is defined by the buildings and the big trees,” O’Grady said. “When one of those big trees disappears, or one of those buildings that helped frame your existence disappears, part of you disappears.”
But from the ashes of the TB ward came the observatory, a building mainly for students and faculty in the university’s astronomy department. Eberts said he hopes use of the facility can be open to everyone at the university, as well as available for Athens City School District field trips. He also hopes the university will invest in a planetarium.
Eberts said the observatory is one small piece and that the university should amplify the projects being done without destroying crucial elements of history.
“A dream of mine would be to use one of those little octagonal buildings as a planetarium where you kick back and see the images projected on the dome.” Eberts said. “I really need that to teach.”
For the future of the Ridges, the university is in the brainstorming process. According to the Master Plan (specifically for the Ridges), the university is considering tearing down parts of the infrastructure where the old dining halls and cottages were located. It also listed that it wants to potentially add a restaurant or hotel.
Eberts and O’Grady are both extremely invested in preserving the buildings to show the structure’s natural history and architecture while the university is discussing removing more of the Ridges using a concept called “selective editing” to improve the renovation process. Selective editing entails the process of removing particular portions of the Ridges that the university deems unimportant to the overall building structure.
The Master Plan states: “It is certainly possible to apply this concept to the Kirkbride Complex, both for individual buildings (replacing an existing wing with an addition that has larger bay spaces or higher or lower ceilings, for example) or as part of the site plan (remove some structures to make way for new ones or for creative green space). This editing process is an integral part of the adaptability or flexibility portion of analysis.”
Eberts said first and foremost, the university should consider preserving the Ridges’ rooftops to prevent worsened interior damage. He believes Ohio University is on the right track to preservation, but the Ridges should be celebrated rather than feared, and the university should be protective of the architectural heritage.
“We don’t have to decide what to do all at once,” Eberts said. “As long as the buildings are there, people will come up with different things as time goes by.”
Because of his role in the Southeast Ohio History Center as a tour guide for the outside of the Ridges, Eberts would like the university to approve an inside track for his tours.
Eberts and O’Grady are also strongly in favor of educating individuals on the history of the Ridges and how it correlates to today. Eberts wants to focus on educating about those with mental illness, while O’Grady wants to educate people on the historical aspects of the Ridges, as well as respect for the buildings and the stories behind it. Eberts and O’Grady also hope that part of the Ridges can be renovated into a historical museum.
The Ridges is a structure that emphasizes history, architecture and legend, but to many it is something more. It is is a stable point in their past. In the future years, the Ridges may be evolutionized to fit in with Ohio University, or it may be renovated to preserve its rich history — only time will tell.