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History Made: Bellevue Place adds quirkiness to Batavia's varied history

Published: Thursday, May 23, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, May 23, 2013 11:23 a.m. CDT
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Caption
(Collections of the Batavia Depot Museum)
An old postcard of Bellevue Place in Batavia is seen. INSET: Mary Todd Lincoln stayed at the sanitarium in 1875. Pictured is the facility’s patient ledger showing the length of her stay.

BATAVIA – Bellevue Place has quite the reputation.

Most notably associated with Mary Todd Lincoln's court-ordered sanitarium stay, the Greek Revival-style building that now stands as an apartment complex once served as Batavia's first high school, helped lay the foundation of the Batavia Public Library and sheltered unwed mothers.

The historical relevance of Bellevue Place landed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

It was built in 1854 at the west end of Union Avenue in Batavia as a private boarding high school called Batavia Institute. Using locally-quarried limestone, it cost $15,000, and was the first school for area high school youth.

"At the time there really weren't high schools in Illinois," said George Scheetz, director of the Batavia Public Library. "There wasn't public funding for anything like that, so you'd have private institutions here and there."

Shortly after Batavia Institute opened, the state mandated each community provide a public high school.

"After the law passed, not too many people were enrolling in private schools when they could have a free education at a public school," said Chris Winter, curator of the Batavia Depot Museum.

But before closing in 1867, two of Batavia Institute's literary societies – the Lyceum Association for men and the Sigournean Society for women – apparently laid the groundwork for what would become Batavia Public Library.

Scheetz came across the connection through old meeting minutes and newspaper articles gathered by a predecessor.

"It was a very grassroots-type of movement," Scheetz said. "It was really the local families that started the library, and every indication is that these young people were students of the Batavia Institute."

Early stages of the library began in 1866, when the men's group offered the women's group $10 for book-borrowing privileges, Scheetz said. That served as a catalyst in the creation of the Batavia Library Association in 1867. A lifetime membership cost $5, and an annual tax was used to purchase books.

Lincoln connection

Dr. Richard J. Patterson and a handful of others bought Batavia Institute in 1867, renamed it Bellevue Place and converted the 16-acre estate into a mental hospital for women.

In the early 1870s, two-story wings were added to accommodate 25 to 30 women at a time. The grounds included a greenhouse, orchards, a vegetable garden, a laundry facility, stables, and smoke and ice houses. All fell in line with Patterson's philosophy that peace, quiet and an escape from city living served as the antidote for mental illness.

Mayor Jeff D. Schielke, a sixth-generation Batavian and co-author of "John Gustafson's Historic Batavia," said at that time there was a high demand for sanitariums because a number of women were deemed mentally ill due to the loss of loved ones in the Civil War.

That included Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the late President Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln's assassination, her son Robert had her declared insane, and she arrived at the Batavia sanitarium in May 1875.

Mary Todd stayed on the second floor of Bellevue Place in a suite that cost $10 a day, according to the Batavia Depot Museum website.

Her summer-long commitment remains a point of contention, as there are many opinions as to whether having her committed was the right thing to do.

Witnessing her husband's assassination and the death of three of her four children led some to believe her mental instability was due to emotional distress.

"I think she was [dealing with] tremendous grief. I think it's totally understandable what happened and that she needed mental support," Schielke said.

Winter referred to the book "The Madness of Mary Lincoln," by Jason Emerson, in which the author consulted with several psychiatrists who determined that "in today's time, Mary Todd would probably have been diagnosed as bipolar," Winter said.

Mounting national public pressure about her confinement led to Mary Todd's release in September of the same year.

Remnants of Mary Todd's visit to the asylum — including a patient ledger, her insanity verdict, and the bed and dresser from her room — are on display at the Batavia Depot Museum.

"I think it's the Lincoln connection that really gives Bellevue Place that aura that it has," Scheetz said. "People are so fascinated with everything about Lincoln ... even if it's a squirrely [connection]. She may have been in an insane asylum, but it's our insane asylum."

Home for unwed mothers

Two years after the sanitarium closed in 1964, the building was turned into a residence for unwed pregnant women and renamed Fox Hill Home for Girls.

The home's history remains elusive. According to Scheetz, no records exist of the mothers who stayed there and a single, fake name was used for those who did.

Schielke said he's come across children who return to Bellevue Place as adults looking for their origins, only to hit a dead end.

"I've dealt with four or five people who have showed up in Batavia in search of information about their birth mother, and most of them have had the last name of Smith," Schielke said. "Most of the birth mothers' names on the birth certificates were the same. Apparently, there was a basic name that was utilized for the mothers."

Schielke said those born to mothers of Fox Hill were often given up for adoption, and stringent adoption laws means there isn't much available information as the mothers didn't want to divulge what had happened.

"They could lock up their birth in secrecy," he said.

A common theme he's noticed from those he conferred with is they are grateful to have been adopted by loving parents.

"It proved to be a blessing for them," Schielke said.

Fox Hill Home moved in the late 1970s due to the building's deterioration.

Preservation apartments

Bellevue Place was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, but needed restoration to preserve its historical luster. Schielke said turning the building into a facility with rental units was the only way to preserve it.

Before the restoration, Schielke said evidence was found of three unsuccessful attempts to set the building on fire. By 1986, it had been converted into 14 rental units, and townhomes have been added over the years.

"Hopefully, the building has been saved for future generations, and as long as it's maintained and managed in a functional form then it should be there for a good number of years," Schielke said.

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