Tewksbury State Hospital, Male Asylum // 1901

The Male Asylum building at the Tewksbury State Hospital was built in 1901 from plans by architect John A. Fox, who designed the Administration Building and many other buildings in the hospital/asylum campus. The building was eventually renamed after Anne Sullivan, who is best known as the teacher and companion of Helen Keller. Anne Sullivan contracted a bacterial eye disease known as trachoma, which caused many painful infections and, over time, made her nearly blind. When she was eight, her mother died from tuberculosis, and her father abandoned the children two years later for fear he could not raise them on his own. She and her younger brother, James (Jimmie), were sent to the run-down and overcrowded Tewksbury Almshouse (later renamed the Tewksbury Hospital) as a result, where she endured multiple unsuccessful eye operations and poor, cramped conditions. The male asylum building held cramped dormitories with men and boys suffering from various ailments and mental conditions. The building sits atop a stunning rubblestone foundation and features prominent Romanesque arched windows.

Tewksbury State Hospital, Administration Building // 1893

The Tewksbury State Hospital was established in 1852 as one of three Massachusetts State almshouses (along with Bridgewater and Monson). The almshouses were needed due to the unprecedented influx of Irish immigrants at that time, many of which found difficulty locating work. These almshouses represented the state’s first venture into care of the poor, a role previously filled by the cities and towns up to that time. In 1866, when Tewksbury began accepting the “pauper insane”, it became the state’s first facility to accept cases of chronic insanity specifically. Decades later, Massachusetts Governor Benjamin Butler accused the almshouse in Tewksbury in, “trading in bodies of dead paupers and transporting them for a profit to medical schools,” and “tanning human flesh to convert to shoes or other objects”. The facility was later investigated, and no conclusive evidence was found. In the late 19th century, a major rebuilding (and re-branding) campaign to upgrade the old almshouse by replacing its early wood-frame buildings with more durable and fireproof masonry ones was undertaken. One of the earliest “new” buildings was this Queen Anne-style Administration Building, standing at the head of the former entrance drive, which creates a fairly foreboding presence. This building was designed by Boston architect John A. Fox, and showcases the epitome of Queen Anne institutional design. The hospital runs today much like a traditional campus, with some of the older buildings unused, providing a strange composition. The former Administration Building is now home to the Massachusetts Public Health Museum.

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).