The former Bryce Hospital building is not only an aesthetically pleasing building, for decades it was one of the country's leading mental health institutions. It opened in 1861 as the first mental health hospital in the state. Thanks to the leadership of it's first superintendent, Peter Bryce (for whom the hospital was eventually named after his death in 1892), the hospital became known for its advanced treatment of the mentally ill. It closed in the late 2000s and was eventually acquired by the University of Alabama, which, as of 2017, is renovating the old building into several new uses including faculty offices, performing arts classrooms and practice space, and two museums—one to showcase the history of the hospital and the other the history of the university. Additionally, the university is building a brand new performing arts center just south of the old building. The former hospital building was added the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
The design of building itself also reflects the new approach to mental health treatment of the mid-19th century. The hospital's architect, Samuel Sloan, and the leading mental health expert of the period, Thomas Kirkbride, collaborated to design the building in such a way that would facilitate the best treatment for patients. Kirkbride was a strong advocate of giving patients more attention and not restraining them at all. He also believed that patients ought to be allowed to work, giving them a sense of purpose and to distract from their mental health issues. His philosophy became known as the Kirkbride system, which served as a model for mental health hospitals around the country. The patients worked and produced goods which were then sold to help fun the hospital. This worked so well that it unfortunately convinced the state to decrease the hospital's funding over time. By 1970, public concern was growing about the treatment of patients and the fact that they were essentially working for free, among other issues. These came to ahead in the 1970-1971 court case, Wyatt vs. Stickney. Fifteen-year old Ricky Wyatt, a patient at the hospital and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the hospital, believed he was held at the hospital unfairly (he was not mentally ill, only deemed a juvenile delinquent). The federal court ruled in Wyatt's favor; the decision led to the creation of federal guidelines for mental health care facilities.