What Will Become of Van Buren Street's Mahoney Building?

Editor's note: This is the third piece in an occasional series about Van Buren Street.

I have been to the bughouse.

It's not nice to call it that, of course. It's confusing, too. Each time I mentioned to friends that I was visiting the bughouse, they assumed I was planning to write about an exterminator. But I grew up in the '60s in a house full of teenage boys, and this is what we called the Arizona State Hospital: the bughouse. The loony bin. The booby hatch. It was legendary; the punchline to many jokes. If you were acting weird (and I, in childhood, was always acting weird), you were "headed for 24th and Van Buren."

Somehow, I didn't make it to the bughouse until just last week. I knew it was only a matter of time, however — not because I've been waiting all my life for mental illness to overtake me, but because I've been writing from time to time about the history of Van Buren Street and, well, one can't do so without eventually acknowledging the landmark at 2500 East Van Buren.

Originally known as the Insane Asylum of Arizona, the hospital opened in 1887 on 93 acres as the state's only publicly owned and operated hospital. Like most other large asylums across the country, it was a dumping place for the mentally ill, who were warehoused in places like this asylum; gotten out of the way of a polite society that had little understanding of mental illness. Treatment of the insane was rudimentary and, by today's standards, shocking. And asylums like ours doubled as dumping-off places for the elderly, the mentally retarded, and the homeless, who lived alongside the mentally ill.

The original asylum, like so many of its counterparts elsewhere, was designed in the Gothic style, with pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and wide, rounded-ceiling interior hallways. After a fire leveled the property in 1911, the hospital was rebuilt and renamed the State Asylum for the Insane. Its new buildings, designed in the Mission Revival style by noted architecture firm Lescher and Kibbery, have been torn down over the years; today, most of the newer administrative buildings are unpretentious, '60s ranch-style office buildings.

The sole survivor of the 1911 rebuild is the Mahoney Building, an administrative building that, like so many other notable old structures here, is in disrepair and has been abandoned. There's a movement afoot, led by former Department of Health Services director Susan Gerard, to save the nearly 100-year-old structure. I'm always happy to hear that any old building is being saved, but I can't help pondering the irony that money is going toward restoring an office that's trapped behind chain link and not accessible to the public.

"Well, hang on," Gerard told me when I phoned her the other day. "We don't have restoration money yet. We just scraped together enough to get the place cleaned up, and now we've got to find some way to pay an architect to do some conceptual drawings we can use to raise money for the refurbishing."

I complained to Gerard that John Cooper, the very gracious CEO of Arizona's Department of Health Services, wouldn't let me go inside Mahoney, but she just laughed. "You don't want to go in there," she said. "It's not safe. There's hundreds of dead pigeons in there, and you don't want to be breathing bird carcasses. Trust me."

I do trust Gerard. She's a building hugger, like me. She saved Mahoney from the wrecking ball by getting it listed as a significant building on the National Register of Historic Places; now, no one can knock it down. Of course, this means that Gerard and her preservationist pals have to figure out what to do with it.

What Gerard would like to see is a multipurpose Mahoney Building, with a mental health museum where the hospital might honor the history of mental healthcare with its stash of old medical equipment, and a gallery where mentally ill people could exhibit the work they create in art therapy programs. Upstairs, Gerard says, mental health agencies could provide services to the families of the mentally ill.

Ultimately, though, the ways in which a refurbished Mahoney building is used is up to the folks who fund its renovation. And the renovators certainly have their work cut out for them. I peeked into Mahoney's lobby and saw its tall, transomed doorways obliterated by paneled dropped ceilings, its cement floors pitted and stained with old linoleum glue, its sexy staircase cracked and peeling.

Once it's restored to its former glory, though, who will have entrée to it? "There's a possibility that there would be public access to Mahoney from Van Buren Street," Cooper told me. "Otherwise, the public would have to come visit the building by appointment only."

It seems unlikely that either setup would amount to much public use of the building. Gerard thinks it should be up to "the community" to decide Mahoney's fate — a thought that makes me queasy, because our community is overly fond of knocking down old buildings and throwing up another Circle K. Why should our community get to decide the fate of a protected building, once it's restored?

"We're really far away from thinking about how the building is going to be used," Gerard reminded me. "But if someone wants to give us a million dollars tomorrow to restore Mahoney, we can be talked into pretty much anything."