Danvers Lunatic Asylum // 1874

One of my favorite buildings in Massachusetts has to be the Kirkbride Building at the former Danvers Lunatic Asylum. After the American Civil War, the need for an additional psychiatric hospital for the Boston area was critical, as others in the state and region were already at capacity. A site called Hawthorne Hill in Danvers was chosen for the new hospital; the scenic vistas, fresh air, and acres of farm land to work were part of the therapeutic treatments thought to have cured insanity. Stakeholders of the new hospital hired Nathaniel Bradlee, a Boston architect to design the Victorian Gothic main building and some later outbuildings. Bradlee employed the Kirkbride Plan, a system of mental asylum design advocated by Philadelphia psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809–1883) in the mid-19th century, which advocated for air circulation and natural light, through the use of elongated buildings.

Opened in 1878, the extravagant asylum drew some criticism from the working class residents of Danvers living in its shadow during the first years of operation, wondering why the “insane” were given such grand treatment. Patients were given ample space and could even farm on the grounds. As the asylum grew, the importance for new buildings were paramount. A series of underground tunnels connected many structures to allow the facility to fully function during the cold winter months.

Asylum formal garden, maintained by patients ca. 1880. Courtesy of Frank Cousins Collection.

The downfall of the Hospital began in the 20th century when the crowded hospital paired with lack of funding. By the 1930s, the number of patients grew to over 2,000 while the size of the staff remained relatively the same.As a result, the quality of care began to deteriorate as the overwhelmed staff struggled to control the massive number of patients. Patients were soon subjected to “special garments,” presumably straitjackets, as a means of control. In 1948, the first lobotomy was performed at the hospital and in the 1950s electric shock therapy was introduced. By the 1960s, state hospitals had become outdated and unnecessary due to better psychiatric medications, a more enlightened approach to treating mental illness and the establishment of a statewide system of community health centers.

The main tower was removed from the Kirkbride Building in the 1970s due to lack of funding. The hospital eventually closed in 1989 after a series of security concerns and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to entirely cut funding to the “outdated” facility. The former asylum sat shuttered high on the hill for decades until it was converted to apartments, with most outbuildings being demolished as part of the redevelopment. Now you can (willingly) live at a former insane asylum. Any takers?

2006 Image of Kirkbride Building during controlled demolition. Photo courtesy of Maurice Ribble (Flickr).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s