Untold Stories

Temple of Humanity

When imagining a mental institution, most Croats will think of the best-known one in the country. The hospital is known as Vrapče, and the name became a synonym for a psychiatric institution in Croatia.

Vrapče is also the name of a neighborhood in Zagreb. I’m taking you there with the help of this post because I already know you love discoveries. Imagine the surprising feeling of awe - you walk around a modern part of the town, far away from the city center, when, all of a sudden, an incredible yellow house that looks like a royal palace, built in the baroque style, appears in front of you. What you see is the main building of Vrapče Hospital. It has a very exclusive feel once you enter its grounds, and is a prominent feature of the entire neighborhood. 

Prepare to get stunned by the elaborated entrance to the hospital. 


How to get there? A train takes you from the city center directly to the Vrapče neighborhood. I am sure that, at this point, all the locals who are reading this are thinking of that old joke: How do you get to Vrapče? Just follow the road until you go off. I know, the joke is a tiny bit inappropriate these days. It is also unbearably obnoxious for anyone who lives in the neighborhood and spends their life listening to all those poor jokes people are trying to make about their “lunatic” neighborhood. Speaking of names, Vrapče is a name very similar to the Croatian word for sparrow, hence the souvenir:

Pillows on a mission. Photo by vrapci.org


The cute pillow says: I am depressed, getting my treatment, and saving your spot!  Mental health issues are around the corner of each person’s life path, and clever souvenirs made by patients are here to remind you of that. It is almost incredible how, as a society, we managed to tuck those issues under the carpet and keep them there for decades. The hospital is trying to raise awareness in many ways. Did you know there are two hospital museums, a memorial library, and even film screenings taking place within the hospital complex?

The yellow colour of the temple of humanity 


Have you ever heard of the old term yellow house for a soul asylum? It’s pretty much lost in English, but Croatian still uses it. Vrapče is truly painted yellow, but why? There are many explanations. Many public institutions were painted yellow at the time. You might have noticed some in the city center: Croatian National Theater, the Museum of Arts and Crafts, or the Art Pavillion. Some hospitals, churches, and other public institutions across the Habsburg Empire were yellow, too, as ordered by one of the emperors. 

For a long while, yellow was associated with optimistic feelings, as it calls for the memories of sunshine, and warmth. A historical rumor has it that was the reason for painting asylums yellow. There could be some truth in all of these suggestions. Most probably, the architect Kuno Waidmann found inspiration in baroque castles when he designed the hospital.

A description found in a more-than-a-century-old-document: The state hospital in Stenjevec near Zagreb is an institute for the mentally ill of both sexes. It is a treatment center for those who could get cured and a haven for those who couldn't.


The hospital is like a metaphor for mental illnesses. Its facade makes it hard to imagine what's hidden behind, just like people's faces often don't give away what goes on inside. This is the first hospital in the region built as a complex, with several buildings and green spaces in between, all of this hiding behind the main building. I am not certain there is a more elaborate or humanly designed hospital in the entire country up to date.

I visited the complex only once several years ago. I was curious to see the hospital museum. It was one of the most special days I’ve ever spent in Zagreb. If you wish to visit, you should call in advance, since it’s not a busy place and medical professionals take care of it, alongside their actual job. The small museum placed in such an authentic setting is such a revelation. I visited with my friend from abroad, and she bought the last pillow. I wonder if they made more as I would love to get one, too.

There’s also a gallery that exhibits artworks by patients and serves as a place for all sorts of art workshops and art therapy. Vrapče has never really had a notorious reputation, even if it is equipped to deal with criminally charged patients. Many progressive professionals worked there. Doctor Župić, for instance, implemented art therapy as early as in 1920s. Eventually, the collection of art pieces was enough to officially label it a museum. Some of the famous patients were artists themselves. Marija Novaković started painting during her decades-long treatment. The most famous Croatian female painter Slava Raškaj spent the last years of her short but incredible life in the hospital, leaving 6 of her pieces behind. Appreciated writers Ante Kovačić and Vladimir Vidrić were also among more than 150 000 patients who came to Vrapče for treatment.

The same doctor Župić came to the idea to start a museum that would honor the hospital's history. This was 50 years after the hospital had been founded. It has been more than 145 since its foundation by now, and we are grateful such a treasure cove exists.


Back to those words - yellow house. Using them carries a negative connotation. How about the temple of humanity? Those are the words written on a memorial plaque at the entrance to the hospital. Indeed, the very construction of the hospital was a big social event, and it took part in the 19th century, alongside the building of many important institutions. Since its early days, the hospital has been a part of the city’s culture. During the ceremonial opening of the Croatian National Theater back in 1895, the director of the hospital was seated close to the director of the theater, and they joked about yellow houses’ directors being placed together, wondering what kind of message this sent out. This is a good opportunity for a shout-out to the 1800s builders. It is a famous fact that the National Theater was built in only six months. It took less than 2 years to build this immense hospital with its gardens and some of the other objects. 

The hospital admitted the first patients in 1879. It is hard to share all of its ups and downs, dark times, and glorious days, and it's impossible to take even a glimpse into thousands of lives that, for a while, found their asylum here. 

The size of the people and the lamps will give you an idea about the height of the hospital. Notice the charming fountain, too.


Vrapče was called the temple of humanity when it was first opened. It has followed the psychiatric progress and has treated thousands of people. It is appreciated, recognised and respected. Still, whenever the locals talk about it, they will end on a light note. So shall we. The hospital grounds got the most visits by the general public when a massive craze hit the world. Some years ago, when the PokemonGo app was released, you could spot an unusual amount of people wandering the hospital property searching for Pokemons. Imagine that sight! All the doctors and patients were looking from a safe distance, thinking all those people were absolutely.... crazy!


Photos by Ivan G 

Author: Iva Silla