1923 – Alberta

The Provincial Mental Institution, 1923

sketch of modern institutional building with verandas

Oliver, Alberta (Edmonton)

Current Name
Alberta Hospital

The Site

The Provincial Mental Institute was opened in 1923 in the village of Oliver on farmland a short distance north of the City of Edmonton. The village no longer exists, and housing developments of the expanding city are approaching across open land. The Oliver and Ponoka hospitals are close together in the geographical centre of the province.

The site is on flat land that drains slowly to the valley of the North Saskatchewan River to the east. The soil is of high agricultural quality and was ready for production in 1923. The buildings depend entirely on planted tree belts and gardens for visual interest and natural enjoyment, and for windbreaks. From the beginning, the hospital and its grounds captured the image and the atmosphere of an island on the prairie. Depending on the expansion of the city, that picture will remain for a few years to come.

Architectural and Service Details

Architect R.P. Blakey, FRIBA, Provincial Architect
Floor area Building No. 1, 22,000 sq. Ft including a basement and partial 4th floor.
Height Building 1, four stories, including a basement and partial 4th floor. Building 2, two stories.
Description Each early building is monolithic. After the addition of many structures, the site is now an informal pavilion development.
Occupancy Building No.1, about 60, 1923, estimated from the plan. Building No. 2, about 55, 1923, Max occupancy, about 1500 in 1953, in all added buildings.
Structural  Fire resistant, brick and stucco walls. Construction photo appears to show steel framing. Floors presumably concrete.
Heating Powerhouse built, 1923. Coal-fired steam boilers, automatic stokers Steam to the kitchen, laundry, sterilizers. Ventilation by electric fans and duct system. Low-pressure radiation for the wards, with screen guards.
Lighting Electric, from steam-driven generators.
Water supply Connected to City of Edmonton system.
Plumbing Fixtures adequate, disposal plant used activated sludge.
Fire History None noted by Hincks in 1929 report. Staff organized a fire brigade, drills twice each month.

The Buildings 

“The facilities were not good by today’s standards. Beds were very close together, and sometimes mattresses were put right on the floor. The patients were a pretty forlorn bunch. For some, the only activity was to walk up and down the halls, pushing polishing blocks to shine the floors. There was very little active treatment.” Dr. Morris Carnat, former intern at Oliver in Alberta Hospital, Edmonton

The first building at the Oliver site, now known as Building No. 1, was planned by the Department of Education as a place for the confinement of mentally incapacitated children. It was to be known as the “Institute for the Feeble Minded”. Before its opening, it was taken over by the Department of Public Health and dedicated to care for the chronic insane. A shuffle of facilities took place whereby patients, including 47 returned soldiers, were transferred to Oliver from Red Deer. A home for mentally retarded children in South Edmonton was closed, and the children moved to the existing hospital in Red Deer which subsequently cared for people with developmental disabilities. Floor plans of Building No. 1, as it was first built, have not been found.  Whether it originally followed a mansion concept seems doubtful, given its size and proportions.

Building No. 2 is tightly organized, with narrow corridors, an airing verandah, and a balance of private rooms and small wards for 2 to 5 beds each. Its footprint is a simplified “T” shaped mansion plan, with double loaded corridors, and a mixture of single rooms and small ward spaces. It had one very small dayroom, at the crossing of the corridors. These first two buildings of the Oliver hospital were small, undistinguished structures, with no embellishment and a frugal use of space. The buildings were strictly utilitarian, with little space for social functions or private enjoyment. A ground level corridor connected the buildings for all weather ease of travel. The Oliver institution was included in the 1929 CNCMH report on institutions in Alberta. In that report Drs. Hincks and Farrar noted benefits and deficiencies in the facilities and operations of the hospital. They wrote that dormitories were large and airy, holding 50 patients each. Fireproof construction, and adequate drills and fire extinguishers were noted.

Floor plan of the Provincial Mental Institution, Oliver, Alberta

Dr. David Dick, the first superintendent, believed that healthy employment was good occupational therapy. His approach was successful for the 35 percent of male patients who could undertake heavy outside work in summer. That number was reduced to 20% in winter.Dick’s daily records of construction work by patients read like duty logs of an army engineer, demonstrating the importance of patient labour in constructing the hospital site; ” Excavation for laundry and concreting of floor and footings; Excavating and concreting tunnel between laundry and main sewer: Old farm house cellar filled in; Considerable heavy cut and fill grading around buildings No.1 and No.2; Unloading ten cars gravel and two cars cement.”

New buildings were under construction at Oliver as late as 1969; an addition to #3 Building in 1935; a dormitory in 1937; #5 Building in 1942; #8 (a laboratory building) and #9 in 1950. A tuberculosis building and recreation facilities were built in 1952; administration and service buildings went up in 1953; and an admissions building and a ward unit (Cottonwood) was added in 1969.

Grounds, Farms and Gardens

“The patients loved the farm. In the early days they came in a democrat to haul milk to the hospital. Sometimes I had to buy a new cow to get enough milk – a lot went into soup. The patients loved to work there, and when it closed, many of them broke down. “  Jim Shearer, Farm Manager in Alberta Hospital, Edmonton

In 1922 and 1923, preparation for planting and other landscape work at the Provincial Mental Institute was accomplished with the aid of a small group of patients from the Ponoka hospital. In the late 1920s, when Dr. Charles Fitzpatrick briefly enlivened the hospital with improvements, long dining tables and benches were replaced by normal 4 to 6 place round tables, cutlery, and napkins. Flowers from the gardens were added, pictures were hung, and singing birds were provided in day rooms. By 1927 the nursery supplied other public properties in the region. Grounds were improved with shrubs and trees; Paton’s rockery was built in 1929-30. Landscape work included collecting five hundred young native evergreens and planting in nursery beds. Many patients tended their own small gardens for food and flowers.

In their 1929 report on Alberta institutions, Drs. Hincks and Farrar noted that ……”the grounds gave a pleasing effect,” … Alex Paton, a longtime gardener at Oliver, built a rock garden and grotto that was popular with visitors from the city. Grade school children from Edmonton visited the nursery to make leaf collections.  According to LaJeunnesse, people would make the short trip from the city to visit the grounds, and to observe the patients’ behaviour. The first superintendent, Dr. David Dick, was proud of the ornamental gardens, ”The lawns and flower gardens are beautiful, and evoked much favourable comment from the press.” In 1929 extensive planting of hedges, trees, shrubs and perennials added to the appeal of the grounds. Tennis courts were built, and more rockeries established. 

Nine hundred of the 1000 acres initially provided for the hospital were put into cultivation by the Department of Agriculture. During the Depression the farm operations were taken over by the hospital, using an experienced farm family for management and a mixed crew of patients and outside employees. Patients worked hard, with no pay, and were restricted to menial tasks but farm work meant activity, good food, and a degree of freedom not available to other patients. The farm became a financial success and continued its operations in spite of complaints from local farmers who wished to supply the hospital

A golf course and tennis courts were built with patient labour, but were plowed under during the Depression years. Sheila Kelly worked at Oliver as a psychiatric aide while she was an undergraduate university student in the mid-1950s. Kelly remembers patients being taken outdoors to watch a staff baseball game, the absence of gardens and plants, and patients walking in airing courts and verandahs, climbing naked on the steel mesh screens. A Shack Town, undated, developed at the rear of the grounds. Patients salvaged lumber, cardboard, and metal from a burning pit behind the hospital shops. The first shack was built by an old trapper. He kept a small still and was skeptically regarded by night-shift workers for his offers of home-made stew which he made with muskrats caught in nearby marshy land.

Horticultural therapy falls between work and recreation. I place it here because it is also used as occupational training, to good effect. The Alberta Hospital Edmonton continues that practice with enthusiasm. In the late 1990s an outpatient asked for permission to develop her interest by working in the gardens and greenhouse. Doug Lehman, Greenhouse Coordinator, agreed.  When the patient finished treatment, Lehman continued with an organized program that now includes 40 clients, who work in shifts. They have named the greenhouse “Plants-a-Lot.”  It is still operating and has been well received in the Edmonton region.

Institutional Life

“The patients’ only real friends and companions were in the hospital, for many had been there for years… none of the patients complained.  Many of them came from farms with not good surroundings – log cabins with leaky roofs, where you wake up to ice in the water pail in winter. There was no electric power, no indoor plumbing. Here the patients were always warm and dry and had plenty to eat and a bit of tobacco.”  A. K. Wright, Retired Nursing Supervisor

The Oliver hospital was used as an annex to the Ponoka institution, and designated for care of chronic patients. According to LaJeunnesse, most patients had been admitted before the age of 35 years, and were transferred from Ponoka as hopeless cases with little likelihood of ever leaving hospital. 70 percent were of rural background. 80 percent were destitute and shunned by their families.

Dr. David Dick, the first superintendent at Oliver, was proud of the physical health of his patients, in spite of the fact that under his direction the hospital offered no programs of organized physical exercise. He was conscientious about economy of operations, noting that under his leadership the cost of care was 86 cents/day in 1923; 60 cents in 1926; and 69 cents in 1929.

Hincks and Farrar’s 1929 CNCHH report objected strongly to the idleness of most patients, critiquing the hospital’s inadequate hydrotherapeutic equipment, the absence of a trained nurse on staff, and the lack of games, gymnastics, or drill exercises. They noted that patients were not segregated by type and severity of illness, leaving competent and alert patients in close proximity to patients in deteriorated condition. Following this report Dr. Charles Fitzpatrick, formerly of the Ponoka hospital was engaged. He stayed two years, initiating new measures for patient benefit. They included outside work for 50 % more patients, and systematic indoor physical workouts during rough weather. Housekeeping and maintenance changes involved patients in sewing and repair shops. Elementary training in basket work and toy-making led to articles for sale at the Edmonton Exhibition. Games and reading material were made available. Long dining tables with benches were replaced by normal 4 to 6 place round tables. The use of knives and forks by patients was initiated. Staff were nervous, a cutlery count was maintained, but food need no longer be soup or mashed and eaten by spoon.

Sadly, these new measures were cut short by the Depression of the 1930s. Overcrowding, always an issue at the Oliver hospital, became worse. During the Depression sleeping quarters became very crowded. Beds were closely spaced, and mattresses were placed on available floors. Single side-rooms were constantly in use; some patients were in straight-jackets, and doors were locked. As hard times wore on, crowding increased and fighting was common. Wards were bare and depressing, knives and forks were replaced with spoons and paper plates, and the hospital regressed to a primitive state.

The troubles of the hospital in Oliver did not end with the Depression. Extreme crowding into the 1950s and 1960s. Patients numbered 1071 in 1944; 1258 in 1947; 1497 in 1953; and 1345 in 1965. 

Sheila Kelly’s memories of Oliver in the 1950s include chronic patients in non-segregated quarters who were considered to be there for life, in some cases simply because there was no family to receive them. A day room was furnished with long tables and backless benches at tables and along the walls. And a windowless corridor led to private rooms for bedridden patients, and “side rooms” for solitary confinement were furnished with a mattress on the floor. In her time at Oliver, Kelly did not see any abusive or cruel treatment, or hear of it in staff discussion. Her impression of the hospital was one of regulation and surveillance, and custodial care where nurses were always occupied with record keeping and medications.

The advent of drug therapy in the 1950s brought many changes, but the fate of the institutions has yet to be resolved. Downsizing of mental hospitals and the mixed benefits and burdens of large scale release of patients made news world- wide in the 1960s. Provincial and national newspaper reporters covered the Alberta situation, attacking the Ponoka and Edmonton (formerly Oliver) institutions. One paper published a dramatic series of damning articles written after a faked committal to hospital. Possible expansion of the Edmonton and Ponoka hospitals was hotly debated in the 1980s and 1990s. Each hospital had supporters urging additions to their facility. Possibly the proposed rebuilding of both hospitals, at an estimated cost of 150 million dollars in 1990, was intended to pacify the competition. That prospect did not materialize, and the 1999 decision to spend 95 million to rebuild the Ponoka Hospital gave Edmonton and the former Oliver institution the short end of the deal.


Sheila Abercrombie. Alberta Hospital Edmonton, 1923 to 1983. Edmonton: Alberta Hospital, 1983.

C.M. Hincks and C.B. Farrar, “Report of Commissioners Appointed to Investigate the Provincial Training School at Red Deer, Provincial Mental Institute at Oliver, and Provincial Mental Hospital at Ponoka,” Legislative Assembly of Alberta, 1929.

Ronald LaJeunesse. Political Asylums. Edmonton, Alberta: The Muttart Foundation, 2002.