Eloise. The mere mention of the name can send shivers down the spines of any who grew up in the southeastern Michigan era. The dark, brooding, mental asylum stood poised at the corner of Merriman Rd. And Michigan Ave. for decades inciting myths and legends about what went on behind those walls. I can remember as a kid, my older brothers teasing me whenever we drive by about how they were going to drop me off and leave me there. Then later as a teenager, we'd drive around its grounds late at night on a dare, keeping our eyes peeled for escaped inmates. This was one scary place!
Author Patricia Ibbotson peels away those urban legends in her wonderful and comprehensive history of Eloise which was so much more than I ever knew. Eloise was founded in the 1830's as a poorhouse in Nankin Twp. Michigan which later became the city of Westland, my home town. The original log cabin building has once been known as the Black Horse Tavern. From this tiny, lone structure rose a vast complex of over a dozen buildings that became a city unto itself. Eloise had its own police and fire departments, its own post office, general store, greenhouses, bakeries and tobacco curing house. The farmlands it was nestled on grew a variety of crops that were all tended to by the patients and inmates of Eloise. Eloise even had its own auditorium used by both patients and employees to put on shows.
At its peak Eloise housed thousands of patients and inmates, but as I found out, it was much more than just an asylum. It was the Wayne County General hospital for many years until closing in 1984. Eloise also was a nursing home, caring for the aged and the infirmed, and boasted a Tuberculosis Sanitarium in the early 1900's as well. Eloise also continued in its original goal by caring for the indigent. There is a striking photo of a dormitory as large as a football field, with row upon row of bunk beds for what was termed "POGIES" or "poor old guys". The men could come to Eloise for a roof over their heads and three square meals per day. While the living conditions may not have been ideal, as Ibbotson points out the alternative today is that they are homeless and on the streets.
This fascinating history is told with over 200 archival photos from the 1800's right up until the facility finally close in the 1980's. I was astounded by the photographs of Eloise's interiors. Thinking I'd see something out of a "B" horror film, I instead saw interiors that looked like they were taken inside a posh hotel. Art deco designs, Tennessee marble walls and columns, and Terrazzo tiled floors adorn the buildings and Eloise took things such as patient's needs for warm, natural lighting into consideration decades before it became the norm. But you never lose sight of the fact that this was a mental facility. The buildings that were used to house the inmates are covered in thick, iron bars. One darkly humorous photo shows three smiling female attendants standing before a table piled with leather restraints; another shows a patient on a table under going electro shock therapy. Perhaps the most historically interesting photo is that of Bridget "Biddy" Hughes, who had the distinction of being the first person committed to Eloise in 1841. She would spend the next 54 years there until her death in 1895.
Today, little is left of the once sprawling complex; just an administrative building is all. Now occupying the land is a strip mall featuring a grocery store, video store, etc, and a McDonalds restaurant. Eloise may be long gone but the urban legends and tales of hauntings are still passed along by residents of the area today. What a captivating history of a true Michigan legend. Well researched and filled with outstanding photography.