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Institute of Living
Hartford, CT

Imagery taken from Institute of Living publications. Outside photography of the grounds is prohibited.

The Institute of Living1 was founded in 1822, built in 1823, and first opened to patients the following year. Its initial name as the Connecticut Retreat for the Insane (and later, the Hartford Retreat for the Insane) has been dropped from the organization's identity and values, but it can still be found in the avenue that separates the Institute from the rest of the Hartford Healthcare campus in the neighborhood.

The facility's early mission was groundbreaking: to replace barbarous and stigmatic treatment of mental illness with moral, compassionate care. Dr. Eli Todd, as its first superintendent, had experienced the difficulty and trauma of caring for his own sister whose episodes of depression and eventual suicide haunted him. He advocated for treating patients using scientific understanding to treat the underlying conditions as a disease, not a moral failing by the patient. The prescription? Pleasant and peaceful surroundings, healthy diet, kindness, an established regimen, activities and entertainment, and appropriate medical attention. ''The great design of moral management,'' Dr. Todd once said, ''is to bring those faculties which yet remain sound to bear upon those which are diseased.''2

The hospital could house between 40 and 60 patients depending on “sex, nature of disease, habits of life and the wishes of their friends.” The weekly cost of care was $3 for Connecticut residents, $4 for those from out of state and $10 to $12 for a suite with an exclusive personal attendant3. The steep retail pricing reflected the reality that the hospital could expect to serve the needs of the indigent and unfortunate without promise of financial support.

Frederick Law Olmsted's involvement with the grounds began in 1860 with correspondence to Dr. John Simpkins Butler, the superintendent of the Institute. Dr. Butler lamented that the grounds had not been conceived with the same careful consideration as the primary hospital buildings. Outside of the Central Building complex, the remaining 37 acres consisted of a rough, broad swale replete with soggy soils, overgrown trees, and haphazard plantings. It was an image that reflected poorly on the Institute and it's goal of providing a dignified environment for healing.

Dr. Butler desired a "therapeutic Arcadia", a place where patients could ramble through embellished grounds and "wax poetic about flowers -- the best of medicine". Improving the grounds would also raise the public esteem of the space and show the utility of landscape as a means to heal both body and mind. Beauty was not optional; it was essential to the premise.

Olmsted, along with his architect partner Calvert Vaux, responded to Dr. Butler with some initial ideas on how to transform the wasteland behind the Central Building into a showpiece of the campus. The pair  traveled to Hartford later in 1860 to see the grounds in person and devise a plan to improve it. Their design was completed in spring of 1861 and well-received by the governing board of the Institute. Fundraising soon began in earnest and found strong support among neighbors and other members of the community.

The plan shows strong influences of English country landscapes including planted perimeter buffers along Maple Avenue, Retreat Avenue. and Washington Street. The classic multi-layer canopy of evergreens, deciduous trees, flowering trees, and ornamental shrubs were used to frame views and delineate the usable limits of space. Other areas of primarily picturesque plantings serve to demarcate gathering nodes, invite movement, and soften edges. Sinuous walking paths meander through the buffers, lawns, and programed spaces with link all of the spaces together. In a smaller clearing, Vaux contributed a modest Museum structure to house a pool table, musical instruments, books, and other objects "for the amelioration of the conditions of the unfortunate inmates".

Not all of the details had been finalized yet, and Olmsted would soon take leave of his partnership with Vaux to take up his assignment as Executive Director for the United States Sanitary Commission. In less capable hands, this would have been the end of the idea, but fortunately, the Institute selected the capable Jacob Wiedenmann to oversee the next phase of work. 

Draining of park area to produce a usable field for passive recreation took over 10,000 feet of drainage tile. New drains and brick sinks were installed to allow runoff to avoid ponding as it had been accustomed to do. Over 4,500 cubic yards of soil were excavated along Maple Avenue to establish proper drainage and remove poorly draining subsoils. The central lawn received a lighter touch with many of the original specimens trees being spared from the axe. For many years, these very large "champion" trees graced the landscape and imparted a sense of maturity amidst the young saplings. A rare Pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis), succumbed to Tropical Storm Isaias in August 2020. There are still several other originals remaining including a Bur OakGingkoBigleaf Linden, and Sweetgum.

Retreat Park, as it became known, officially opened in 1863. Dr. Butler, in his report to the board, noted that "Your Committee...thinks it due to Mr. Wiedenmann, to express their entire satisfaction with the good taste and sound judgement he has shown in carrying out the plans, and with the efficiency and shrewdness of his general management. The results are greatly to his credit." Planting operations continued at the park again in 1864 and 1865 with additional ornamental shrubs being added under the direction of Mr. Wiedenmann.  

This project represents an early and immensely successful collaboration between Olmsted and Wiedenmann who would continue to collaborate together for the next two decades. A bust of Olmsted was added to the park in 2005, but there is no official recognition of Wiedenmann who was responsible for the project's timely construction and impactful results on a lean budget.


The park itself remains mostly intact with respect to the original concept. The grounds remain open to the delight of patients and the public alike. Portions of the central lawn have unfortunately been lost to parking, and much of the perimeter buffer has similarly been eroded due to other development needs for the Institute campus. Vaux's Museum remains as do the walking paths and major trees. Both the Institute of Living and Frederick Law Olmsted will be celebrating bicentennials in 2022.

Historic Plans & Images

Plan Reproduced from "Beautifying Country Homes" by Jacob Wiedenmann, 1870.

Engraving and Historic Campus Images Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Sketch Courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

Postcard Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Project Data and Further Reading

Job # 12015 (1860-1887)

This site has LIMITED ACCESS for public visits during regular business hours (9 am to 5 pm); please see the self-guided walking tour for a suggested route for walking in the open space
2. There is a convenient visitor parking lot located at 200 Retreat Avenue.  Visitors can go to the Guard Gate at the Retreat Avenue entrance to obtain a self-guided walking tour map, or download it at the link below.

The remainder of the campus is an active healthcare facility. For the privacy of staff and patients, please stay within designated areas unless you have visitation or admission privileges. Photographs are prohibited.

Scans of Original Plans and Documents

1: Institute of Living: About Us

2: New York Times: Hartford; The History of Insanity, Shameful to Treatable
3: The Record: Years in the Making
4: Institute of Living: Massive Pecan Tree at IOL, Dating to 1860s, Destroyed by Isaias
5: Institute of Living: Self-Guided Walking Tour
6: Rudy J. Favretti: "Jacob Weidenmann, Pioneer Landscape Architect", Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation, Inc., 2007,      pp. 54-58.


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