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The Ridges Cemeteries, Athens

In January 1874, the state-of-the-art psychiatric state hospital and farm that opened in Athens was believed to be the ideal setting to improve the health of the patients who resided there. First known as the Athens Lunatic Asylum, it featured elegant buildings and elaborate landscaping with ponds, fountains and parks -- all in the midst of a huge multiproduct farm designed to make the hospital largely self sufficient in food stuffs and give the patients healthy, open-air employment.

Eventually, a cemetery was opened for deceased patients whose bodies were not claimed by family or friends. By the mid 1950s there were three cemeteries in the complex.

Virtually everything about burial at the state hospital was austere. The deceased were wrapped in shrouds and placed in plain wooden coffins. Until 1943, graves were marked only with small, sequentially numbered marble stones that eroded rapidly and were easily broken no names, no dates. Beginning in 1943, name and date of death began to appear, but on the same sort of stone. Only the most recent cemetery had headstones cut from weather-resistant granite.

Once painstakingly landscaped with shrubs, flowers, and trees, the cemeteries became overgrown and deteriorated over the course of the 20th century.

Faced with budgetary constraints, hospital administrators used scarce funds to support the living rather than the dead. Uprooted and broken stones were seldom repaired or reset. Grave dimples were left unfilled and hundreds of grave sites on the edges of all three cemeteries became overgrown with brush and trees. And the memorial pond, constructed in the name of a former patient, was left unrepaired after its dam was breached in the 1960s. When Ohio University purchased the hospital in 1988, renaming it The Ridges, the cemeteries remained State property and the University maintained them as a courtesy to the State. But the University did not have the manpower to correct pre-existing problems. The cemeteries became infamous as scary, haunted grounds.

In 2000, an ad hoc Ridges Cemeteries Committee was established to study the condition of the cemeteries and propose solutions. Through many in-kind and monetary donations from public and private sources, many entities and individuals in the region supported the restoration. This included several mental health-related groups, the City of Athens, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and many volunteers including labor from Hocking College and Ohio University. This effort has continued for 11 years and has included clearing brush and trees, resetting headstones, filling in "dimples," re-sodding the grounds, placing permanent seating, adding signage and an informational brochure, and building a nature walking path between the cemeteries. Help has also been provided to descendants with finding the graves of their ancestors, placing private grave markers, and accommodating ceremonies for individuals and larger groups.

In recent years, the Ohio Department of Mental Health arranged for $5,000 annually to be dedicated in-perpetuity to continue the restoration of the cemeteries and to maintain the Nature Walk and Nagy Memorial Pond.

The restored cemetery, the rebuilt Nagy Pond and the Nature Walk are all designed to show respect to the 2,000 state hospital patients interred there and help families re-connect with their ancestors. And visitors can now enjoy the grounds as places of contemplative beauty.

2011 Awards 
Presentation Image. Click to view slides of the awards presentation.

Click here to return to the list of 2011 Ohio Historic Preservation Office Award recipients.

Click here for a list of past Ohio Historic Preservation Office Award recipients.

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