Exploring Sydney: Callan Park Hospital for the Insane

Former Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Sydney, Australia

Former Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Sydney, Australia

One of the ladies who guided me around Sydney’s architectural heritage when I was off-duty from my commitments to Sydney Decorative & Fine Arts Society was Robin, who after showing me Vaucluse House, made an offer I couldn’t refuse:  would I like to see a fine Victorian lunatic asylum?

Callan Park Hospital for the Insane was designed by the Scots-born Colonial Architect for New South Wales, James Barnet (1827-1904), and the Inspector of the Insane, Dr Frederick Norton Manning (1839-1903), to take the overspill of patients from the Gladesville Hospital of the Insane at Bedlam Point, which had opened as the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum in 1838.

The Callan Park Hospital opened in 1885 in a grand complex of Neo-classical buildings known as the Kirkbride Block, built around an existing residence, Garry Owen House (c1840), which had been built for the Crown Solicitor and Police Magistrate, John Ryan Brenan.

Dr Manning was a leading figure in the development of enlightened care of the mentally ill.  He aimed to provide treatment, rather than operate what he described as a “’cemetery for diseased intellects”.  He encouraged visitors and battled to beat down the nineteenth-century prejudice against what was still called lunacy.

Callan Park was his first opportunity to design an institution from scratch.  Barnet’s design was based on an English model, the Chartham Down Hospital for the Insane, near Canterbury, Kent.  The complex consists of a series of pavilions and courtyards, with plenty of opportunity for fresh air and changes of environment.  The gardens were designed to have a calming influence by the Director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, Charles Moore (1820-1905).

The hundreds of cast-iron columns which support the verandas channel rain-water into an underground reservoir, the level of which was indicated by the ball that rises and falls above the central clock tower.

Over the years, Callan Park became under-resourced and overcrowded, and eventually became notoriously outdated.

The mental-health facilities, latterly known as the Rozelle Hospital, left the site in 2008: the Kirkbride complex is leased to the Sydney College of the Arts, part of the University of Sydney, and the grounds are used as a public park.

There is a detailed account of the history of Callan Park at http://www.dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/callan_park_mental_hospital.


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