1913 – BC

The Hospital for the Mind, 1913

large sketch of old asylum with grounds in front


Subsequent Names
Essondale Hospital
Riverview Hospital


Throughout this section the titles “Essondale” and “Riverview” are synonymous. The hospital is named Essondale in discussion of events prior to 1965, and Riverview thereafter. Site clearing at what is now known as Riverview started in 1904, opening a 1000-acre allocation which included space for expansion of hospital facilities. In 1905, 19 patients and 2 attendants were engaged in clearing land. The first major building erected on the Mount Coquitlam property was the “Male Chronic Building”. It was opened in 1913 and was located a short distance from the New Westminster Asylum for the Insane. The two hospitals at times acted as one. New Westminster initially received all admissions, and the future Essondale/Riverview institution cared for chronic, long stay- patients who were transferred to reduce crowding in New Westminster.  That practice was later reversed.  After its conversion in the late 1940s to a school for developmentally disabled people, the New Westminster Asylum ceased to exist. The Riverview site thereafter became the mental hospital of the province.

black and white aerial view of large institution in wooded area looking beyond to a river
Aerial view of Essondale, later called Riverview, 1947

The Riverview site refers to two separate parcels of land. The lands occupied by hospital buildings are located on the eastern slope of Mount Coquitlam and are referred to as the “uplands” portion of the site. Colony Farm occupies bottom land of the Coquitlam River, referred to as the “lowlands”. The Riverview Lands are blessed with excellent climate and available water. The uplands are well drained, the lowlands require dykes and a drainage system. Soil on the original forest floor of the uplands was a mixture of clay, sand, gravel and boulders, typical of rain forest conditions. The uplands portion of the site needed clearing, stump and rock removal, and preparation of imported topsoil. River bottom soil is alluvial deposit of the Coquitlam River. It was partially open meadow land, and easily cleared and cultivated with drainage added. In 1904 land was acquired; by 1908, 450 acres were clear and protected by dykes and drainage ditches. That work was completed in 1909, including 3.5 miles of drainage ditch. Subsequent flooding of the Coquitlam and Fraser Rivers, in 1922, 1926, and 1948 required repair and reinforcing of dykes.

Riverview Hospital lies in Coquitlam, a city in the metropolitan area of Vancouver. It is situated on a sloping site rising from the west bank of the Coquitlam River, near its junction with the Fraser. The uplands property originally contained a 25.5 hectare (63 acre) parcel that remains as Riverview Forest, now dedicated for public enjoyment.  There are 50 acres of mature forest, plus a 40 metre buffer strip for wind protection. It is a unique wilderness in the Lower Mainland area, comprised of 100 year old trees that reach a height exceeding 170 feet. Soil is very good for forest growth, with moisture for undergrowth.

Originally separated from adjacent communities by dense forests, the hospital site was clear-cut for construction, and re-planted with imported materials. It is now bordered by housing developments constructed since World War 2. Hospital land is now 244 acres, following removal of several areas that were assigned to other operations. The Riverview Task Force reported to The City of Coquitlam Council, on February 3rd, 2005, recommending that the Forest and its streams be preserved for wildlife habitat, and connected by a trail network with Finnie’s Garden, the Cemetery, former wetlands (at Colony Farm), and Mundy Park.  Political and community objectives in Coquitlam are under debate concerning property value and community and heritage priorities. Possible commercial development of the site is resisted by community, arts, heritage, and nature activists.

Architectural and Service Details, 1913 Male Chronic Building

Architect H.S. Griffith, Victoria
Floor Area Approximately 198,000 sq.ft including a basement and partial 5th floor
Height 4 stories, including basement
Description Monolithic, “H” plan
Occupancy 480, Male Chronic Building, in 1913. Design occupancy of the entire institution is 2381 (1951). Actual occupancy was 4151 in 1946 (67). Entire institution, (numbers vary, an undated hospital history records 4630 in 1951)
Structural Specifications for 1908 design competition required reinforced concrete structures throughout, faced with brick. Interior walls required soundproofing.
Heating Coal-fired power plant built in 1913 with steam boilers for heating, kitchen, laundry and power generation. Superior forced air ventilation to all wards required by specifications, using a plenum system with no opening windows. 
Lighting Electric; Colony Farm also lighted and powered by electricity.
Water Supply In 1895, the City of New Westminster purchased Coquitlam Water Works Ltd. and supplied the entire area from water mains running through the hospital property. Water was always high quality and of adequate supply. 
Plumbing Bathing and toilet facilities to high standards, giving nighttime access to washrooms.
Fire History No serious fires have occurred at the main hospital buildings. Several buildings at Colony Farm were destroyed, 1946/47, one staff died, prize horses were lost, arson was suspected. Fire hydrants and alarms were available at the Hospital and Colony Farm. Occupational Therapy building burned, 1955, not re-built. Fire Hall constructed on hospital grounds, 1927, and closed in 1988, service taken over by the City of Coquitlam.

The Buildings

“A fine appearance and be one of the most up-to-date institutions on the Continent.” Henry M. Hurd, 1917

In 1908 an architectural competition was held for planning and design of an institution to shelter and treat 1800 patients. It was won by H. S. Griffith, Architect, of Victoria. The New York State Architect acted as adjudicator. In 1913 the Male Chronic Building was opened, the first major building on the plans. Construction standards for fireproofing, walls, windows, and doors required high quality. Heating, ventilation, and lighting systems were to be of high order. Expansion of the hospital, then known as “Essondale”, was slowed by World War I, but in 1924 expansion of Essondale began in earnest with construction of an Acute Psychopathic Unit, later named Centre Lawn. Instructions to the architects working on the design competition were rigorous with a requirement for spaces for manual arts, crafts training and recreation. Dr. Doherty, the institution’s first medical superintendent, insisted on the use of congregate dormitories for 90% of patients, a design that was not favoured by Dr. Hincks of the CCMHC. Doherty proposed isolation and fresh air exercise for all cases of acute insanity. A Chronic Female Building, later renamed East Lawn, was opened in 1930.

The second floor of the Male Chronic Building (now West Lawn) indicates only 24 single rooms, plus 4 large dormitories and 4 day-rooms per floor. Under crowded conditions all of this space was needed for beds. The plan is primitive in that it requires traffic to dormitories and day-rooms at the end of wings to pass through occupied spaces and lacks segregation and control of patients by medical condition and individual privacy. The short corridor in the centre of the building is single loaded, but too narrow for recreational walking. The arrangement of dormitories without through corridors denies the use of corridors for exercise and demands a central stair tower for fire exit purposes. There are no sitting rooms for private or social use. The arrangement is based on extreme efficiency in use of space. The plans of later buildings are not available, but descriptions by former staff indicate that by design, or possibly renovation, they adopted the more common double-loaded corridors reaching full length of all wings, with corridor access to fire exits at each end.

Floor plan of the Hospital for the Mind, Coquitlam, BC

Although there was no new construction at Essondale during the Great Depression and World War II, some renovations occurred after the Depression and World War II. In 1936 a former Boys Industrial School, adjacent to the hospital site, was converted for use as a Home for the Aged. In 1959 it was replaced by a modern four-story institution and reborn as Valleyview, the nexus of a triad of provincial residential geriatric psychiatric facilities. Active treatment and reduced length of stay in hospital was enhanced in 1949 when the Crease Clinic of Psychological Medicine was opened.  Veterans were transferred to a new building at the Colony Farm. It later became the Forensic Unit of the Riverview Hospital.  North Lawn, opened in 1955, was first occupied by psychiatric patients with tuberculosis, then by patients needing more medical and physical care. In later years it functioned as a multi-purpose building. In 1965 the institution was renamed Riverview.

Beginning in 1955, boarding home programs, mental health centres, and psychiatric wards in general hospitals allowed the closure of older facilities. Reductions in hospital populations occurred for the first time in their history; de-institutionalization put an end to the Asylum Project in British Columbia.

Architecturally the Riverview site is now composed of a variety of buildings with no stylistic or formal consistency. They constitute an informal pavilion concept that responds more to topography than to formal planning. The large early buildings are utilitarian in character.  Red brick walls and appended accents of neo-classical entries built of wood add little architectural distinction. Several newer buildings follow the spirit of the 20th century Modern Movement. They have little interesting detail, and their wide, flat surfaces are washed clean by frequent rains. Several small cottage buildings and their shrubberies are more pleasant; some were early staff residences.

Grounds, Farms and Gardens

“Originally the grounds were laid out with beautiful flowering magnolias, Japanese flowering crabs, plums and cherries, as well as other types of exotic trees. Just to mention a few, two Gingko Biloba or maidenhair trees, the oldest known tree known to man, are planted in the bays on either side of the steps leading to the East Lawn building; another interesting tree is the Empress Tree.” City Spaces Consulting, 1992

The Riverview site included two productive sections of land: the uplands which accommodated hospital buildings, recreational facilities, and gardens, greenhouses, nursery, and orchards, and a lowland farm in the river bottom below the Riverview site which was used for farming, animal husbandry, and foraging. A separate building housed patients working at the farm.

Located on a site which occupied the east and west banks of Coquitlam River, the farm began production in 1904-1905, nearly a decade before Essondale opened its doors. Dr. Manchester, superintendent of the New Westminster institution in 1902, had recommended creation of a farm, suggesting that it could provide vegetables for the hospitals, fodder for livestock, dairy products, and fuel for the bakery and boilers in summer. The 1911 growing season produced 230 tons of hay, 130 tons potatoes, 130 tons of barley and wheat, 250 tons of mixed root vegetables, 20,000 gallons of milk, 24 calves, 8 colts, and 600 cords of firewood. In national competition in Ottawa in 1912, Colony Farm livestock took 13 of 14 possible prizes and farm stock competed successfully in agricultural events in Ontario, the United States and at the local Pacific National Exhibition. The farm was so successful that it became a provincial experimental farm producing grain, vegetables, root crops, horses, dairy cattle, sheep, and pigs. Public and political interest in Colony Farm remained high, even into the deinstitutionalization era with a 1953 article in Victoria’s Colonist newspaper noting yields five times that of the 1911 report and a cannery that produced 25000 gallons of fruit, 6000 gallons of jam, and 1000 gallons of pickles.

A 1910 competition for landscape planning and design of the upland hospital grounds was won by McLean and Sandy, engineers and landscape designers with previous experience on English projects. On his conceptual plan McLean deferred to what he saw as public disfavor of formal planning, except at the approaches to the first structure, the Male Chronic Building (now West Lawn). There he proposed a long axis from the building to a railway station at the base of the sloping site. It was planned with beds of plants, and a Venetian Well, that would, “ add a finishing touch of delicate grace to the tout ensemble.” Roadways at Essondale followed contours rather than axes of symmetry and preliminary work included soil preparation and tapping and root pruning of native trees and shrubs. Small areas were planted in formal layouts, driveways were lined with flower beds and shrubs, and wide lawns were planted with trees for shade, color, and spatial interest.  Plant stock was purchased from a bankrupt nursery in Surrey, and the institution’s nursery supplied the University of British Columbia grounds and all provincial grounds in British Columbia. 

The uplands area of Essondale was also noteworthy beyond the gates of the institution. In 1912 John Davidson, Provincial Botanist, was commissioned by Provincial Secretary Dr. Henry Esson Young to establish the British Columbia Botanical Garden, the first to be created in Western Canada, on the site of the future asylum. The Botanical Garden was intended to assemble a plant collection of native B.C. materials, to clarify nomenclature of B.C. plants, to grow critical species for study and research, and to prepare for a Department of Botany at the University of British Columbia. In 1916-1917, under wartime economy, the garden and herbarium (25,000 plants of 900 species) were moved to the future UBC campus on Point Grey, where they remain in operation. The trees of the Botanical Garden, however, remained and have been preserved during construction of new roads, services and buildings to the present day. Next, Jack Renton took charge of the Essondale grounds. He was of Scottish origin, with experience landscaping Scottish and Welsh castles, and at England’s Kew Gardens. Essondale as an old country estate was his objective in design.

There was also an extensive upland vegetable garden and orchard established on the new site and provided food for all institutions in the area. By 1947 the nursery was among the largest in the province, supplying schools, airports, government buildings and highway projects. In 1969 the nursery of 60 hectares produced 12,000 trees, shrubs and ground cover, 10 beds of bulbs, and 10 beds of annuals for wards and hospital offices and residences. The Garden Department also provided landscaping for jails and courthouses.

This entire Essondale agricultural and gardening enterprise was created and maintained by the free labour of patients, which in 1919 amounted to a contribution of $ 12,757.06 to the institutional coffers. The garden and orchard were built by patients, who contributed 12,000 hours of labour and worked 4 to 6 hour days. In 1916 patients worked 24,127 outside hours at the hospital site, and 18,553 at Colony Farm. Their work including clearing land, laying water mains, building a stone fence and a root-cellar, and working in the nursery The vegetable garden was worked by 7 gangs of 15 male patients each, with a male nurse in charge, except a one acre fenced plot tended by women. Dr. Doherty’s 1906 report noted increases in garden and farm production, and recoveries from mental illnesses. Mechanization began to replace hand labour after 1970 and unpaid patient labour was discontinued in 1984 following civil rights action and threatened lawsuits. By 1992 there were 5 gardeners and a supervisor on the grounds, mainly mowing lawns and 1 contracted gardener to maintain the annual flower beds.

The story of Art Finnie’s garden belongs with work and therapy as much as to the quiet recreation it provided for patients, staff, and visitors. Finnie worked at Essondale from 1937 and 1951 he began a small program of patient gardening. Known as Finnie’s Patch, the 2.5 acre garden includes stone terraces, a greenhouse, log cabin, stone barbecue, and a fish pool with lilies and goldfish, built by male patients and maintained by male and female patients.

The landscape at the hospital site continues to attract visitors; it provides beautiful spaces for patients and staff, and resists recent efforts towards sale and/or development of the property. The impressive architecture of the early construction, a renewed Finnie’s Garden, and the trees remaining from the original botanical garden are powerful blocks in the way of outright commercial interests and continue to add a picturesque quality to the upland hospital grounds.

Patient Life

“Nearly 200 patients help to earn their keep by voluntary labour on the farm. Other hundreds work on Essondale’s lawns and shrubs, do kitchen and cleaning chores, make nurses’ uniforms and clothing for the patients, and turn out hundreds of mattresses, rugs and items of furniture and hospital equipment in Essondale’s vocational shops.” T.A. Myers Victoria Colonist, January 1953

Work was a significant part of life for most patients at BC’s main mental health facility, from its opening until the deinstitutionalization period. T. A. Myers noted in 1953 that the intensive farming operations included livestock, an orchard, and a cannery, and this work is detailed above. Inside labour for laundry, kitchen, cleaning, sewing, tailoring, and shoemaking helped to keep the cost of care and treatment at $3.67 per patient/day. Unpaid labour by patients for clearing land, farming, and gardening was used at Essondale until it ended in 1984, due in part to legal claims for wages placed by former patients. Agnes McKinnon, who worked at Riverview after 1947, makes clear that female patients were not given the benefit of outdoor work.

Early recreation was extremely limited. Airing courts were strongly criticized by early inspectors, but remained in use, probably due to the small number of staff needed to supervise large groups of patients taking exercise there. Occupational therapy was introduced in 1924 and a professional therapist hired six years later. A big shift toward patient recreation took place after World War II. The first Director of Recreation was appointed in 1945 and recreational and social opportunities were enhanced in a 1951 open ward policy that allowed many more patients to enjoy recreation on the grounds. Pennington Hall, a facility for patient recreation was constructed in the same year and included a dance floor, canteen, and gymnasium for roller skating and basketball. In its 1953 special series on Essondale, The Daily Colonist listed a wide variety of indoor hobbies and games for patients including: art, handicrafts, swimming, bingo, cribbage, billiards, finger paint, singing, and bowling. Softball games matched teams of upland patients with teams from Colony farm and the ball diamond is still visible on level land near Lougheed Highway. Tennis, and volleyball were played regularly by patients and staff. A yearly sports day was held between the Centre and East Lawn buildings and the annual Strawberry Tea and Carnival Day.

In the era when desinstitutionalization was becoming policy, patients went further afield than the Essondale grounds and farm site. From the 1940s onward, Vancouver Shriners contributed rented buses for day trips to local attractions, including the Pacific National and the Vancouver Art Gallery and Courthouse and further afield to the Gulf Islands. Patients skated in Port Coquitlam from 1966 to 1970, they swam in an above ground pool, and at the beach in White Rock. From 1980 to 1986 the Recreation Department provided bicycles, and staff escorted patients on tours. For the benefit of patients after discharge, a bicycle safety program was established.

These expanding recreational possibilities took place alongside a burgeoning institutional demographic, with the population of the hospital growing steadily to an all-time high after World War Two. Hospital populations are difficult to interpret; a Department of Health Report, of June, 1970, records a total of 4,151 patients in 1946. In the late 1940s attic and basement wards were opened. Anna Tremere uses statistics of 1951, showing 3479 patients at Essondale, 46% over its rated capacity of 2381. In 1951 a study showed that the West Lawn building was overcrowded by 30.8 %, East Lawn by 56.8 %, and Centre Lawn by 42.5%.  The special report of The Daily Colonist, January 1953, listed a total of 5119 patients in the Essondale-New Westminster institutions.  The reporter, T.A. Myers, noted that single rooms were jammed with 4, 5, or 6 beds, a situation that had existed for years.  In 1953 Deputy Provincial Secretary, R. A. Pennington, stated that,  ”We’re nine or 10 years behind in our building and I’m not sure we’ll ever catch up.”


The Riverview Lands, Val Adolph and Brenda Guild Gillespie, eds. Port Moody, BC: Riverview Horticultural Centre Society, 1994.

C.M. Hincks. “Mental Hygiene Survey of the Province of British Columbia,” Canadian Journal of Mental Hygiene, vol.2, no.1, 1920.

Henry M. Hurd. The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1917.

Agnes McKinnon. I Carried a Key. Canada: Hignell Printing, 1996.

T. A. Myers, “Mental Hospitals in B.C.,” The Daily Colonist, January 1953.

No author, “BC Riverview Development Interim Report,” Appendix E, City Spaces Consulting, 1992.

Riverview Reminisces, Val Adolph, ed. Port Coquitlam, BC: Riverview Hospital, 1992.