Touring history: Inside Eloise asylum

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Westland — Entering the Eloise hospital complex isn't near as frightening as legend had it during its century of operation or the decades since its demise. 

Detroit Paranormal Expeditions gives a tour of the former Eloise Hospital Complex in Westland, on Oct. 25, 2018.  Starting out as a poor house and farm, Eloise grew into an asylum and hospital, and even housed some Wayne County offices as late as 2016.

But if the barred windows, the long-forgotten hydrotherapy stations, decaying firehoses, or the overall decrepit state of the building don't speak to you, perhaps the chill inside the abandoned former asylum will. 

Past shattered glass on the floors, past the peeling paint, the empty light sockets and the institutional furniture left behind as if in abrupt departure, lies a template for a fright movie or a tour of the paranormal.

The movie's been done. Welcome to the Eloise Tour.

Bring a flashlight and your nerve, say organizers with Detroit Paranormal Expeditions, who shepherd visitors through an empty post office that once served the vast campus that included a psychiatric hospital, nurses living quarters and operating rooms, where electroconvulsive therapy was administered.

"Eloise has been off-limits since its closure, (in 1981) and we wanted to take the opportunity to showcase its history and give visitors the opportunity to imagine what it looked like when it was operational," said Jeff Adkins, co-founder and lead investigator of Detroit Paranormal Expeditions, a Metro Detroit group that investigates reports of haunted locations. 

Public tours, which cost $65, began in September. A few spots are still available through Sunday. The Detroit News joined a tour Thursday to get a last look as tours wrap up.

The Eloise Hospital Complex has stood along Michigan Avenue in Westland for nearly 200 years.

The blighted complex, which had its own ZIP code in then-Nankin Township, once consisted of 78 buildings, an entire community that was self-sufficient. Only five structures were left standing when Wayne County sold the property, slated for redevelopment, in June for for $1.

Developer John Hambrick purchased the 28-acre property with plans to invest $20 million in creating affordable senior homes and emergency housing for families in need. 

Hambrick said he allowed the Detroit Paranormal Expedition to host the tours before redevelopment with hopes the tours will prevent others from breaking in, especially on Halloween. 

Adkins said they never expected such an enthusiastic response to the tour, which has had more than 1,000 people. 

"We originally planned for a few hundred visitors, offering tours on weekends during October, and the response has been so overwhelming ... ."

A large room on the first floor of "D" building built in 1931, one of 78 buildings that made up the Eloise complex.

Inside Eloise

Visitors can see all five floors on a two-hour tour of the Kay Beard Building, an administration building that housed the post office, patient admissions and treatment center.

Inside, paint peels off original brick white walls that stand in contrast to hundred-year-old stained glass windows, chandeliers and marble floors in the lobby. Wood and metal desks, journals of administrators and unopened mail remain, forgotten when the building was vacated in 1981.

Paint crumbles into old pedestal sinks in a bathroom in the men's ward on the fifth floor.

More eerie: visitors will find soap and paper towels still in dispensers in bathrooms that haven't been used since 1979.

Visitors will hear on the tour how little freedom patients had, unable to control temperatures of showers, or even operate handles to flush toilets. 

Dormitory rooms were 15 feet long by 10 feet wide, some with barred windows and a Post-it-size hole to see into the hallway. Nurses lived in apartments on the same floor as the patients they cared for. Windows remain broken in "almost every room," said Todd Bonner, co-founder and lead investigator of Detroit Paranormal.

A nauseating antiseptic smell lingers in a few rooms, likely from the operating rooms and pharmacy area. Two large medicine cabinets and oxygen tanks were left behind when Eloise shut down. There's even a dental chair from one of the two dental stations, one each for the women's and men's wards.

Callie Meadows of Port Huron said her mother's friend was born in the hospital and she was excited when her brother surprised the family with tickets to tour the building. 

" ... To finally be able to step inside of it is definitely different," said Meadows, 24, who is studying human services and psychology. "I've heard what has happened here and other asylums that were shut down, and to be able to come up and see the features, the tools, the gadgets — it's interesting."

Historical photos from the Westland Historical Society and Wayne State University are hung throughout the tour to help guide visitors while they explore each floor, showing what the floors looked like occupied. The photos show patients gathered to watch television, doctors operating on patients and unsmiling staff.

A photograph of patients in restraints is hung on the fifth floor that at one time housed the men's ward.

"The workers don't look too happy, and neither do the patients," Bonner said. "We also see some (patients') emotion while sitting together in straight jackets."

There are laundry rooms with signs directing workers where to place large and medium shirts, trousers and socks, and a laundry chute leading into the basement, which is not shown on the tour. 

Adkins claims his group's investigation found paranormal activity in the wards, on the second, third and fifth floors. 

A walker mysteriously appeared in the middle of the hallway, he said, after he and Bonner had collected trash and cleaned up the hallway.

"... The walker was in the middle of the walkway," Adkins said. "We had to move it and we had just walked through there."

Visitors, too, send in photos of claims of paranormal finds on the tour, Bonner said.

On the fifth floor, the men's psych ward, a single bathtub likely used for hydrotherapy sits in a large room with the controls on a wall. Different water temperatures were used to shock patients and treat conditions like anxiety, alcoholism and depression, Adkins said. 

The "hydro therapy room" was in the men's ward on the fifth floor.

Shelly Kuula of Redford Township said her aunt was sent to the facility for alcoholism and received electroshock therapy more than three times in the 1950s. 

"It's always been an interesting place, and because I'm a nurse, to see where nurses would observe (the procedures) from, and the fact they would stay here is bizarre," said Kuula, 60. "The old hardware (fixtures) creeps me out, but it's also just so fascinating."

The property has been vandalized by graffiti over the years, lending the appearance of desolation and disrepair.

"There have been urban explorers and damage," Adkins said. "Some parts are more well preserved than you would think." 

The entire complex was closed by 1981; the last psychiatric patients were out before then, in 1979. Wayne County occupied portions of the complex for services like Meals on Wheels and Veterans Affairs until August 2016.

In the first floor lobby of "D" building, tour participants pass a photograph of Eloise, the daughter of Detroit's first postmaster, when she was 4.

Rich history

The name of the complex came from the post office on the grounds, which opened July 20, 1894, and was named after Eloise Dickerson Davock, daughter of Detroit's postmaster. A photo of Eloise when she was 4 years old was hung in the lobby.

Before becoming the Eloise Hospital Complex, it operated from 1839 to 1982 as the Wayne County Poorhouse and then simply as the Wayne County House. In 1913, there were three divisions: The Eloise Hospital (a mental institution), the Eloise Infirmary (the poorhouse) and the Eloise Sanitarium (a tuberculosis hospital) and were collectively known as Eloise, according to the Westland Historical Museum. 

By 1974, it had downsized to two divisions, the Wayne County General Hospital and the Wayne County Psychiatric Hospital. The psychiatric division closed in 1977. Eloise Davock died in 1982 when Wayne County General closed. 

At its prime, Eloise consisted of 78 buildings and 902 acres of land. Now only four of the buildings and the Eloise Cemetery remain.

Across Michigan Avenue was a farm and a cemetery associated with Eloise, used until 1948. There is believed to be 7,100 people there, buried unnamed, with numbered markers, according to Detroit News archives. 

Later, a 2006 movie, “Eloise,” a psychological thriller, was set in the abandoned asylum. 

The fake blood from the movie set remains, apparently untouched after more than a decade.

A red substance, probably paint, is splattered throughout a room and on the windows on the second floor. It's unclear whether it was left by vandals or was part of a set design from a movie on Eloise.

The tours will guide three groups of 30 people through the building until Sunday. Tickets and footage from their investigation for paranormal activity can be found on their website:

Part of the proceeds will be donated to Gleaners Food Bank and Spina Bifida Association.
Twitter: @SarahRahal_