Formidable the K Building stands defiant one of the last remaining reminders and survivors of the former Topeka Kansas State Hospital.
The K Building had always held a certain fascination with me as my Mother had been a patient housed within it’s confines in 1954.
Shirley Elizabeth Hummel had suffered a psychotic break (called nervous breakdown at the time), when she had discovered that her new Army husband had a wife in England. She had been admitted in an almost catatonic state and spent the next year in recovery.
I had drove by the gloomy, now empty and lifeless building numerous times always staring at it and wondering what lay within it’s hidden hallways.
Then one cold mid autumn day I discovered that I had an opportunity to find out what secrets the K Building still held. I was driving school bus at the time and my route included Capital City High School. “Cap City” is a school for at risk children and K Building had at one time in the 1970’s and 1980’s been used as the “Cap City” High School. It was November 9, 2014 and I had some time to kill before I would pick up the students from the Menniger Building (another remnant of the former hospital and then the high school) for their ride home. So I grabbed my camera and walked across the sleeping grass of the long broad lawn that serves as the welcome mat of the dark brick structure.
I started walking around the building taking photos, my imagination ran wild wondering what the inside looked like; what windows did my mother look out of in the sadness of her ruined psyche. Did she long to be set free or did she feel safe shut off from the world within the confines of this sanctuary of the disturbed?
I moved around to the front of the K Building and climbed the concrete stairs to take photos of the large porch where patients once sat smoking their camel cigarettes and trying to make sense of their jumbled world. As I snapped my photos I suddenly heard a creaking sound and turned around to see the entry door of the building swinging slowly open. It wavered and swung slowly back in forth in the slight breeze as if beckoning me to enter. “Come in Gypsy, come in. See what you wonder about, come in. Have your questions answered, come in. Be my guest and know, come in.’ I walked in through the heavy wooden door.
The light of the late afternoon entered the entry hall with me and illuminated the reception desk. My mother was admitted into this structure at this desk. She was just one of a long line of patients admitted into this building. But more special to me than them, she would one day be my mother.
I walked through dark and empty halls of peeling paint and cobwebs. Dust sat heavy on window seals daring you to brush it off and onto the floors that no longer held a high gloss shine.
Windows that were not boarded up fought back the outside light through glass panes frosted from age not desire. Heavy doors hung on heavy hinges within the heavy air of the building. The building seemed to envelope you holding you in and holding in it’s secrets.
I walked down the long hallways dark and foreboding like the catacombs of Paris yet the catacombs of Paris would fight to be as dismal as the K Building was and is. I wandered up stairs majestic and stolid. The craftsmanship of the building was not lost within it’s loss and decay. I explored the second floor which somehow seemed lighter and more airy than the first floor. I then ventured to the narrow stairway that moved higher into the building, to the top floor.
I new, when I entered the top floor that I had found where this buildings darkest secrets lay, they were here. I was standing in the reception area of the clinic and therapy rooms. Damaged and troubled minds and souls had poured out their torment within these rooms. The echos of their pain still permeated the air in these decaying corridors.
Which therapy room had my Mother sat in with her Doctor pouring out her soul and wailing out the torment of the betrayal she had to endure. I would never know but I could still feel her pain and the pain of those who came before and after her hanging in the air.
I moved back down the stairs and decided to explore the first floor one last time before leaving the building. I still wondered what room my mother had been housed in and resigned myself to the fact that I would never truly know. As I moved down the hallways I stared at the doors that still carried the plates where the patients in that room had their names displayed. The plates sat as empty as the rooms waiting for new patients with forgettable names and faces to occupy them once more.
I turned and headed back towards whence I had come, it was time to leave and head over to “Cap City” and pick up my students and that is when I saw it. On an old wooden door protecting an old empty room was a number; 103. Memories flooded back from my childhood and from those memories I knew I had found the room my mother had occupied during her stay in the K Building. I stepped into the room and looked around. It was empty except for an old bench beneath an even older window. Dust mites flew up from the floor and danced within the stagnant air. I moved over to one of the windows and looked out knowing my mother had looked out this same window and I smiled, remembering one of my mothers favorite sayings; “If I had one hundred and three dollars for every time that happened….” I had found my mother in this dying, dreaded monument of a long ago era that few had escaped. My mother had escaped but as evidenced she had forever carried the memory of her time within this place with her. She carried the memory and now I would too.
As I left K Building and walked off the porch I stopped and looked down a stairwell at the heavy steel door that guarded the basement access to the building. I turned and walked away from K Building knowing that it’s basement would be an exploration that may or may not happen on another day.
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