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Did You Know: Territorial Insane Asylum Caused Tension Between Cities

Insane Asylum
Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez/KJZZ
editorial | staff
The Mahoney Building is the last standing structure of the 1912 hospital buildings that made up the State Asylum for the Insane.

It was considered a premier project that would boost the state — and the city that housed it. But over time it became a divisive issue.

The Arizona State Hospital is located near Van Buren and 24th Streets. This area is where the first state hospital opened in 1887. It was a facility dedicated to help the mentally ill. Did You Know…building the Territorial Insane Asylum here caused tension between Phoenix and Tucson?

“The insane asylum was one of the many prizes up for consideration that year. There was an insane asylum, a university and a teacher’s college,” said John Southard, an Arizona historian.

He says these were considered important projects because they would give Arizona an image of a more established region.

“Pima County, Tucson in particular, wanted the insane asylum. It was what they called the plum of the legislature pie. It was a $100 thousand appropriation larger than the university or the teacher’s college,” Southard said.

The university had a $25 thousand appropriation. The teacher’s college $5 thousand.  The Thirteenth Territorial Legislature of 1885 — also known as the Thieving Thirteen for the backroom deals it produced, made the final decision as to which town got what.

 “Prior to the Pima County legislators making it to the capitol there were some delays due to flooding. Deals had been worked out to insure that the insane asylum would go to Phoenix. Tucson ended-up getting the university,” Southard said.

And Tempe gained a teacher’s college. The Territorial Insane Asylum at Phoenix, Arizona opened in January of 1887. It was the only publicly owned and operated hospital in the state. The hospital consisted of three buildings side-by-side with the administrative facility in the center and the patients wings on each side. It opened with 61 patients.

"Tucson remained the most populous city in the state until 1920. And yet here’s Phoenix, this kind of up-and-coming city within a very short time. It has an insane asylum. Just a few years later it became the territorial capital, later the state capital. There was a great deal of contention between the Salt River Valley Phoenix and Tucson," Southard said.

The original structure burned in 1911. By the following year a new facility was built and renamed the State Asylum for the Insane. Only one structure from the early 20 th Century remains.

The vacant Mahoney Building — a former administrative facility — sits in the middle of a restricted area of what today is the Arizona State Hospital. But the old building is visible from Van Buren and 25th Streets. 

Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez was a reporter at KJZZ from 2008 to 2015.