Few locations in Wisconsin are as culturally significant and multi-layered as the site of the Mendota Mental Health Institute (MMHI) on the northern shore of Lake Mendota. Located directly across the lake from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the hospital was built by the state as one of its earliest institutions. The development of the hospital so early in state history indicates that the care of the mentally ill was a priority in Wisconsin from its first days of statehood.
Long before this lake side site was developed by the state as “lunatic asylum,” it was home to a Native American culture that flourished in the region. The artifacts left behind are broadly spaced earthen sculptures in a number of distinct groups. Although similar mound groups are found throughout the upper Midwest, concentrated in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the groups at Mendota are unusual for their number and for that fact that they remain relatively intact. Representing a combination of abstract and animal forms, they were known to be associated with burials, but also functioned as emblems of clan identity and as art forms drawing on motifs from contemporaneous legends and lore.
A third distinct aspect of the history of the MMHI site is embodied by the Wisconsin Memorial Hospital complex, which was constructed by the state for the care of mentally impaired World War I soldiers. Prior to the construction of the complex, veterans were treated at the crowded Mendota psychiatric facility. The state assumed the cost of constructing and managing the facility, but the cost of treating soldiers suffering with “shell shock” was reimbursed by the federal government. Mental health services dedicated specifically to veterans was suspended by the mid-1930s, and since that time the Memorial Hospital complex has become part of the larger MMHI facility.
[Photos courtesy of Mendota Mental Health Institute]