Back in the late 1800s, a new idea swept the country. What if instead of burdening families with the caretaking of their chronically ill family member or letting the mentally ill wander the streets, we put them in state of the art healing facilities? Beautiful facilities surrounded by acres of woodlands and farmlands that looked like college campuses. And so a massive undertaking took place, with majestic buildings erected surrounded by gardens that were tended by the patients. At the time these institutions were hailed as therapeutic and humane, then feelings changed.
In a way, attitudes shifted back to what they were prior to the Victorian era, that it was better for those suffering with severe and chronic mental illness to become the responsibility of family members. And if the mentally ill wish to live on the streets? Well, that is their right. They say that history repeats itself, and I have to say, the older I get the more I realize that that is the case. With changing attitudes the State Hospitals closed, their beautiful Victorian buildings left to decay and then finally plowed over by developers and replaced with condos, as in the case with Danvers State Hospital and Foxboro State Hospital.
Not all State Hospitals were turned into condo developments, some were torn down and replaced with a new state hospital as in the case of Worchester State and Taunton State, the extra lands sold off. I am very happy that I was able to see Taunton State before it was torn down. It was a spectacular sight, not unlike seeing a beautiful historic college campus like Harvard or Swarthmore. Driving through the woods, it suddenly appeared on rolling hills, a pristine example of Victorian Neoclassical Architecture. The inside of the buildings were also just as stunning. Then it was torn down, replaced with the cheap plastic materials of modern architecture. The old slate and copper sold off.
The pictures I have included are from a recent visit to Medfield State Hospital, closed in 2003. For now, you can still visit the hospital and freely walk the grounds, which are massive. This is prime realestate, full of 35 Victorian brick buildings, acres of wetlands and farmlands, including a large plot abutting the Charles River. Visit it while you can because it is only a short matter of time until a developer bulldozes it and replaces it with chintzy condos. You can read the city’s “masterplan” for the site on mshvision.net.
The residents of Medfield overwhelmingly want to preserve the site and keep the park lands open to the public. I agree with this use. There is no reason why the buildings can’t be restored and used as municipal buildings like a RMV, office of parks & recs, etc. Maybe turn some into retail and restuarants. There is plenty of parking as well as a beloved sledding hill. However, according to the masterplan, you can’t do this because the location is too far off route 27. As someone who was just there, I can tell you that this is not the case. There is no reason why this site would not be viable or even an attraction that people would visit from neighboring towns.
So what’s the problem? Here in Massachusetts, we have a lot of experience repurposing historic buildings. Churches are turned into housing, old mills are turned into antique malls, historic factories are turned into mixed retail and residential. Good examples are the Baker Chocolate Factory apartments in Boston and Cordage Park in Plymouth that is part apartments and a free public museum explaining the history of the factory. In New England we love our history. We cherish it, we preserve it, we find creative ways to keep it in use. So why not the State Hospitals?
Well, unfortunately I think it’s two things. I think part of it is that people find mental illness creepy and would rather bulldoze historic buildings than have to think about it. One argument is that the difference is that what are now considered mistreatment occurred at these State Hospitals, so we shouldn’t celebrate that history. However, plenty of atrocities took place at the old factories and even colleges, and yet those buildings have been preserved. People would be outraged if a building at Harvard was torn down, but fine when it’s Taunton State Hospital. Destroying history is not a solution to atrocities of the past. It doesn’t erase them. If anything, I think it’s better we learn about these things and develop an awareness of our treatment of the mentally ill.
The second issue is that the land is just too valuable and too tempting for a developer to tear it all down and cram as many units into that space as possible. Right now the buildings are actually on the registry of historic places, but if you think that can stop anyone just look what happened to Danvers. The city simply waits for nature to demolish the buildings for them and then say “Oh well, guess there’s nothing we can do. So sad. Let’s sell the slate and copper and get some new buildings in here.”
Like I said, I’m glad I got to visit Taunton State before it was demolished. I’m also glad I got to visit Medfield yesterday and I recommend you do as well before the city tears it down. I think it posses serious questions regarding how our elected officials utilize our historic resources.