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Explore the artifacts of this 'outdoor museum' that was formerly the grounds of the Hospital for Insane

Image courtesy of the Behavioral Health Division
The Hospital for the Chronically Insane was constructed in 1888 just north of Wisconsin Avenue on the county grounds. To beautify the grounds, an artificial lake was built, connected with an island by a rustic bridge, with a waterfall on the island, and surrounded by Sunken Gardens.

Lake Effect previously examined the roots of the Behavioral Health Division and mental health care in the Milwaukee-area, which can be traced back to a Wauwatosa farm in the 1850s.

Over the decades, many facilities have been built to address the physical and mental health needs of the community, and with those buildings and their histories come great artifacts to look back on. Jonathan Piel, the unofficial historian for the BHD, shares a few of his favorite pieces and places that you can still visit today:


County Grounds Park has 112 acres of land with 60 acres of woods that contain some historic remnants of patient-curated landscaping and other artifacts left from the Hospital for Insane. Today its features include rolling hills, vistas of downtown Milwaukee, and a combination of habitats including Sanctuary Woods that hosts a wide range of wildlife.

"In a way, it's an outdoor museum that people can still visit today," says Piel.

You can access County Grounds Park from 87th Street north of Watertown Plank Road and Discovery Parkway south of Swan Boulevard in Wauwatosa, Wis. & can explore the interactive map here.


Just south of the County Grounds Park in the Ronald McDonald House parking lot on Watertown Plank Road, you'll find a six foot-tall stone vase — often referred to as a dolphin urn. It's been there for over 110 years and is currently cared for by the Ronald McDonald House according to Piel.

"The dolphin urn is actually quite famous," he notes. "It’s been cataloged by the Smithsonian American Arts Museum’s Inventories of American Paintings and Sculpture Database, and yet it’s just sitting out in the open for anybody to be able to see."

This dolphin urn was made in 1908 by Vladimir Jonathan Kocourek, a patient at the hospital who also had a background as a stonecutter according to Piel. "As part of his industrial therapy, he wanted to cut a large vase to help beautify the grounds," he says.

The administration of the hospital contacted Kocourek's employer, a quarry that then provided an uncut piece of Bedford stone. "[Kocourek] had carved them this beautiful six-foot vase in just a few months. He did it without a model, it included ornamental dolphins, part of the vase being the urn, and then coming out of the mouth of each dolphin is a little frog," Piel explains. "Coming out of the mouth of each frog is some garland and each of the four sides of the vase, the garland represents a different season."

If you go to the site to see the dolphin urn in person, "you'll see there's still an inscription of 1908 and V.J. Kosarick, really the name, initials of the artist who was a patient and was able to be there, be able to improve his mental health state to be able to be released and leave something of beauty to really inspire other patients for more than 100 years," he says.


The Sunken Gardens included a 1.5 acre lake, several waterfalls, beautiful walkways, a cement pergola, and tiered gardens at the time that it was built according to Piel.

"As part of industrial therapies, many of these features were created by patients and certainly the gardens were curated by patients. What still remains today are portions of two waterfalls, a little of the cement porches and the tiered landscape," he notes.

Over the past 50 years the area became overgrown with invasive plants and buckthorn. Over the past two years, Piels says the Friends of County Grounds Park and other community volunteers have been clearing up the buckthorn and opening up the land once again. He says local high school students also held fundraisers in order to purchase and plant thousands of native wildflower seeds at the same location of the historic gardens this past spring.

"We expect those native wildflowers to start blooming this coming spring, changing the historic sunken gardens back to a current sunken garden, again, viewable by anyone who enjoys the park," says Piel.

Jonathan Piel


"Part of the improvements in mental health care over several decades was simply separating men and women from each other in the care of mental health issues ... and this recreational area that included the forest had a men's grove and a women's grove," explains Piel.

He says that within the women's grove there was a large natural ravine, and patients built two field stone staircases for accessing each part of the ravine in the early 1900's to access the small creek and footbridges that down the middle.

"Today the historic stairs still exist. While there's been a lot of decay, they've been sufficiently cleared for safe passage," notes Piel. "It's really a hidden gem within the park — it still provides a sanctuary for visitors today just as it did 100 years ago. In fact, the woods surrounding those stairs are called Sanctuary Woods."


"While there was separation [by gender] under most circumstances, there were times and places where patients were encouraged to interact," says Piel. Each year an enormous all-patient picnic was held on the grounds. This 16mm film (below) captured the picnics that had temporary tenting for dining, grandstands, live music, carnival games, baseball games and other group activities.

"It's refreshing to see the pure joy of everyone involved and a wonderful representation on how patient's time at the hospital weren't limited to the conventional image of incarceration," says Piel. "They got to be outside, they got to interact, there was joy in their lives and in their day, and also captured in those videos."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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