The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) has set its sights on saving the more than 200-year-old campus of the Mount Vernon Arsenal and Searcy Hospital — the site of a former state mental health facility with a complex history that has sat unused for years now.
Exactly how Searcy’s legacy might be preserved still remains unclear, but with a designation on the national level, preservationists in Alabama are hopeful that momentum can grow.
Earlier this year, NTHP — a non-profit that works to save historic structures across the country — announced it would be including Searcy Hospital and the surrounding campus on its annual list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” The program is meant to bring awareness to historic structures that are threatened by everything from expanding development to neglect and disuse.
In Searcy’s case, it’s the later. Though it was occupied and used in various ways for more than 200 years, Searcy Hospital’s most recently served as a state-run mental health facility, but that changed in 2012 when the Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH) closed it down.
Since then, it has sat idol as multiple buildings on the aging campus are visibly deteriorating.
In a presentation on the campus in late June, representatives from state preservation organizations and NTHP recounted the storried — and, at times, unflattering — history of how Searcy and the Mount Vernon Arsenal have been used for more than two centuries.
“Mount Vernon and Searcy Hospital played a role in several difficult and complex chapters in our nation’s history,” NTHP’s Interim Chief Preservation Officer Katherine Malone-France said. “This collection of historic buildings has been a cornerstone of Alabama’s history and economy since the early 1800s.”
The first use of the site was recorded before the War of 1812. The U.S. Army utilized the areas as a cantonment for Fort Stoddard on the Mobile River and as the southernmost border of the Federal Road, a key international border presence for early U.S. military.
It was held by the Confederacy during the Civil War, and later housed Geronimo and other Apache prisoners of war during the late 1880s. The hospital complex on the site also served as a segregated mental health facility for African Americans after 1900, though it later integrated.
Lisa Jones, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission, said that the compound at Searcy is “unlike any other collection of structures in the country” because of many different periods of history, cultures and groups of people it touched over time.
“These are real places telling real stories, and they have a lot to offer each of us,” she added.
There are 40 buildings on the site, 32 of which are considered “historically significant,” including some constructed as early as 1828. According to NTHP, all of those buildings need “immediate repairs — 27 have structural damage, five have substantial damage and one has collapsed.”
Former ADMH Commissioner James Perdue had floated the idea of reopening Searcy and also formed a steering committee to address preservation and revitalization of the site. However, those plans stalled after Perdue was removed from his post by Gov. Kay Ivey in 2017.
Last year, in an interview with Lagniappe, representatives from ADMH made it clear that reopening Searcy as a functioning state mental health facility would be far too expensive to be feasible despite calls to do from some local public health and law enforcement officials.
With that said, ADMH said at the time that a significant chunk of the cost would be the result of having to rebuild the necessary infrastructure to make Searcy a safe medical facility. Currently, NTHP is urging Alabama to start by prioritizing saving the historic architectural structures there. The historic commission has also partnered with ADMH to identify key historic buildings so that repairs can be prioritized as they are able to be made.
While some restoration efforts and a survey of the site have been completed, NTHP and its counterpart on the state level — the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation — say there are many critical needs there still, including stabilization efforts to prevent further damage and loss.
The inclusion on the list of “endangered historic places” is significant to efforts to bring attention to Searcy, but it doesn’t come with any funding to address what could be a very expensive restoration effort nor any plan for how Searcy might be used in the future, if it will be at all.
ADMH owns the property, but made it clear its resources are exclusively dedicated to serving mental health patients throughout the state. A spokesperson told Lagniappe last month ADMH was honored by the designation, but “all available monetary resources” it has would be used to serve those with mental illness, substance abuse issues and intellectual disabilities.
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