The Pale Beyond

“Abandoned America” In Extremis: A Place Where More Than the Buildings Have Been Vacated

Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences
Photos and Test by Matthew Christopher, Foreword by James Howard Kunstler
(Jon Glez Publishing)

All photographs in this post are copyright to Matthew Christopher

Regular visitors to this site will know something of my fascination with lost or abandoned places, the main side topic here when I’m not traversing the highways and byways of rock music history and documentary film. The public’s interest level with such deserted locations has grown to the point where the phrase “ruin porn” is now a thing. Photographer Matthew Christopher, in the introduction of this remarkable and sobering book, says he is well aware that his work may be seen as a modern version of the old Picturesque school of aesthetics. But the book’s subtitle lets on right from the cover that there is a lot more afoot here.

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Page after page feature the devastated remains, in beautifully rendered hi-def photos, of buildings magnificent in scope and/or noble of purpose. These eye-popping images of derelict power plants, factories, trade schools, churches, fraternal lodges and communal vacation resorts speak powerfully of a severely shredded social and economic fabric. (Most of these locations are in Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states). Some may react with an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new shrug but these ruins nevertheless say a lot of what we don’t want to hear.

Back from the late 19th century through to the Second World War era, when most of these places were constructed, there were political and social differences aplenty, often profoundly so. But there was also was a common-denominator civic pride as a baseline, not to mention a colossal industrial sector that not long ago was the envy of the world. This formed the basis for the eventual building up of a solid American middle-class and a wavering but respectable network of aid and comfort for those in legitimate need.

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Speaking of that America in his foreword, writer and social critic James Howard Kunstler (author of “The Geography of Nowhere”) says “we have come to regard its institutions as permanent achievements.” Reflecting on Christopher’s pictures of a shuttered 1927 movie palace, Kunstler observes that it “presents a display of middle-class opulence that is nearly unimaginable now. Reflect on what that suggests about the psychology of yesterday’s working people: they believed that they deserved to have beauty in their lives, and the builders agreed to furnish it.” Nowadays, not so much.

After Kunstler’s incisive foreword, Christopher in his introduction speaks of the theoretical connection between these defunct places and human mortality. In fact, he does so for several paragraphs, perhaps as a bit of a defensive counterpoint to the fetishization of this subject matter in some quarters. (In fact, he has given several of these locations assumed names to discourage both scrappers and weekend urban explorers). By the end, though, he is squarely on topic: mourning our “shared heritage,” he sees these buildings, both mighty and graceful, as a reflection of a national character that has been diminished. In its stead, Christopher sees the endless repetition of strip malls and big-box stores with their cheap imported goods proffered to people who are often in reduced circumstances, holding down meager service-sector jobs themselves.

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The Northeast Manual Training School, with its distinctive castle design, was built in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century as an innovative publicly-funded free school in an area with a burgeoning industrial sector. It later went through various name changes (ending up as the Thomas A. Edison High School) and declined along with the industry and the neighborhood. By the time “Abandoned America” was published it had been unceremoniously demolished and replaced with a discount chain store.

This is not mere nostalgia for a robust heavy-industry economy never to return, it’s more for the loss of the wherewithal to even try and have a constructive dialogue about how to adapt to a changing global economy. It’s there in every achingly vivid photograph of a silenced turbine hall, molding lobby in a working-class resort or half-demolished church. An ideal has been abandoned along with the edifice: this is “a book of heartbreaks” as one person put it in “Abandoned America’s” Amazon comments section.

Not only do those “permanent achievements” look a lot less invariable by the day, the political dialogue (such as it is) about what to do has become the worst sort of zero-sum game. The idea that the two sides of the aisle would have a clash of ideas and each would come away with some of what they wanted is almost laughably quaint now. Now, with Republicans having spent decades literally demonizing Democratic leaders while coastal liberals (many feeling safe with their high-tech jobs) speak glibly of “fly-over states,” we’ve come to a pretty pass indeed.

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Some may think of James Howard Kunstler as a gloom-and-doomer when he talks of America as a once-advanced civilization facing a lasting turnaround “toward a loss of complexity, a reduction in the scale of activity, a loss of artistry, and probably the end of many comforts.” It’s that wish for a return to that greatness, without facing up to any of the complexities needed to get there, that looks like an unsolvable problem in this age of anti-intellectualism and safe spaces. After an election season filled with a succession of soul-crushing inanities, the U.S. elected in Donald Trump the exactly wrong person needed, even if his famous slogan played to those sentiments. Spurred on by a frustration with political gridlock and, let’s face it, conservative media outlets that only know how to act on its most pernicious impulses, struggling Middle America elected someone whose one and only skill is exploiting their prejudices and frustrations—-in fact, a man whose narcissism and unpredictability borders on outright insanity. After not hearing a single utterance of true empathy from Trump, even directed at his own voters, it’s safe to say that not only does he not care about any true “social compact”, but he probably has never given it a single thought in his entire perversion of a life. Man, oh fucking man, have we lost our way in the wilderness of of our own self-regard, leaving us with a national psyche as rusted and hollowed out as the places pictured in Matthew Christopher’s elegiac testament.

At Peace in the Land of “The Electric Pencil”: A Book Review from the Pale Beyond

During the course of my three-part series “The Pale Beyond,” the focus of the text gradually shifted. It moved from the scarifying aspects of the giant closed asylums which dot the American landscape (and the related “urban explorer” subculture that goes with it), to ruminations on the lives of those unfortunate people who were fated to be patients there while they were still open. But a lot of that was merely speculation. Seldom has a class of people been so under-represented, if not downright anonymous. Many of them spent much of their adult lives in these looming Victorian complexes that were designed with the best of intentions but invariably became inhumane warehouses of lost souls.

The story of one of these patients, James Edward Deeds Jr., has come to light with the recent publication of the remarkable picture book “The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3.” The book displays the 283 enchanting and enigmatic drawings done by Deeds in pen, pencil and crayons while he was committed to an asylum in the town of Nevada, Missouri between 1936 and 1973. His subjects formed a fanciful and orderly alternate world of riverboats, trains, factories, gardens, animals and dozens of well-dressed men and women with large and almost hypnotized eyes. Deed’s drawings have a keen draftsman’s precision and a calming, nostalgic view of an era just before his own birth in 1908.

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Behind all this is the story of Deeds’ troubled life and the improbable events that led to the discovery of his art. James Edward Deeds was the eldest child of a large farming family in southwest Missouri. He was likely autistic and, unable and/or unwilling to help much on the farm, was physically abused by a cruel father. After threatening a younger brother with an axe—an act which may have been a prank—he was sent to the nearby State School for the Feeble Minded. Later, he was classified insane and committed to State Hospital #3.

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“It was as if the Victoria and Albert Museum (in London) had been set down on the outskirts of a small town in western Missouri,” Richard Goodman writes in the book’s engaging introduction. Built in 1887, it was the largest structure west of the Mississippi River at the time it was completed. By the time of Deeds’ confinement many of the ideals of this Thomas Kirkbride-designed complex—the Quaker physician-reformer envisioned spacious and therapeutic facilities built to take full advantage of sunlight and even the “prevailing summer breezes”—had gone by the wayside. Deed’s art therapy was self-directed and little known outside of his visiting siblings and his mother, who kept him in pens and crayons. In a rather poignant touch, most of his drawings were made on the pages of a discarded State Hospital #3 ledger book.

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After Deeds stopped drawing due to arthritis, probably in the mid-60s, he gave the unsigned binder to his mother, who in turn handed it over to one of his brothers. But when the brother re-located in 1970, it was mistakenly placed in the trash by movers. A passing teenage boy spotted it and took it home. Goodman speculates why. “Was it that he knew somehow that this was a person’s life effort, a world that had been created with deliberation, care and skill, and that leaving it there would be wrong?” The boy (eventually man) would hold onto the book for all of 36 years, finally offering it for sale while retaining his anonymity. The drawings in The Electric Pencil changed hands a couple of times before ending up in the possession of sculptor/art collector Harris Diamant, who wrote the book’s foreword.

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Certainly many people could relate to Deeds’ creating his peaceable kingdom as a psychic escape from the bleak reality of his life within State Hospital #3. Even in the lives of those of us much more fortunate, there is a constant mental and spiritual need to find our own “happy place” in a very uncertain world. But just beneath the placid surface of these illustrations lies the despairing world that James Edward Deeds lived in. For too many years his “treatment” consisted of alternate applications of sedatives and shock therapy. Diamant took to calling the unknown artist “The Electric Pencil” before Deeds was eventually identified when his niece saw one of the notices that the collector ran in Missouri newspapers. That nickname derives from drawing #197 where the seemingly dyslexic Deeds wrote the word “ectlectric” next to a pencil. But the letters ECT (used by staff for the phrase “electro-convulsive therapy”) would show up on other pages as well. Saddest of all may be the image of a man casting a nervous sidelong glance under which Deeds wrote “Why Doctor.”

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Why, indeed. It turned my mind back to the untold thousands of others who dwelled in more-or-less total obscurity without the alleviating comfort of artistic aptitude, never mind the posthumous recognition of a New York art gallery show and a handsomely-presented book. (Deeds passed away in 1987, having spent his final fourteen years in a nursing home). Recently, on a third attempt, I found the auxiliary Danvers State patient cemetery that I had heard about at the time I started this series. Not having spotted it from the car, I took to my trusty hybrid this time and biked around the area along the Danvers-Middleton town line where it was purported to be—a curious mixed-use area of farmland, rehabilitation centers, community gardens and a Massachusetts Youth Services detention center.

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After a while I spotted it up on a gentle slope from a low-lying field. It was a mile away from the old façade of the Danvers asylum (the centerpiece of the new condo development there), a pleasantly situated rectangular site off the road. As usual, numbered graves abound, but a recently-dedicated plaque now lists the names of those interred. Since the most recent passed away in 1920, most of these people would have lived in the imagined time frame of Deeds’ graceful drawings. Here they were, at peace in the imagination of the artist as well as within the borders of the rail fencing, even with a pall overhead that the October sunshine didn’t quite burn through.

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A “Pale Beyond” Postscript: The Haunting and Humane Photography of Christopher Payne

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Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
Photographs by Christopher Payne, Essay by Oliver Sacks (The MIT Press, 2009)

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Breezeway, Taunton State Hospital, Mass.

(All photos in this post are copyright to Christopher Payne, used under “fair use” provisions)

I felt very lucky to have had a chance last winter to see a nearby gallery show of the extraordinary work of New York-based Christopher Payne, maybe America’s foremost photographer of “disappearing histories” as the headline of a recent Payne interview called it. I was already familiar with his work via “Asylum”, since the coffee table book with its austere cover shot of a white straitjacket hanging on a pale blue wall caught my eye in Barnes & Noble a few years back. Payne shoots in traditional large-format film and makes digital C-prints from there. These sensitively-rendered images of eerily abandoned state hospitals are plenty impressive in the book but mind-blowing in a gallery, where some of the vertical prints were some four feet high.

Fascination with shuttered asylums, as well as the urban-explorer impulse with which it overlaps, has really taken off in the Internet Age, a phenomena I explored in my 3-part “The Pale Beyond” series (see it in the “Categories” section to the right or in “Related Posts” below). There are many different, and often excellent, websites featuring the work of people braver than myself who find their way into these abandoned buildings and come away with evocative photos that earn gushing praise from followers and lots of “oh-wow-that’s-creepy” reactions on the comments scroll.

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Danvers State Hospital in panorama

All that is fine. We’re a society in love with the macabre and the mysterious, and many of these buildings fit the bill. A lot of them were built in the Victorian era, with gothic spires that came to seem sinister once conditions there deteriorated. But Payne’s approach to this subject is different and refreshing. He was trained as an architect and had never visited a state hospital before 2002, when a friend who knew of his interest in industrial archaeology told him about Pilgrim State on Long Island, a 10,000-bed asylum on a 1,000-acre campus. By that date, Pilgrim was operating to a tiny fraction of its original capacity (while hundreds of others had fully closed). Payne in his foreword admits to being “dumbstruck” by the monumental scale and the landscaped setting; it was the start of a six-year project that would eventually lead him to dozens of these mammoth institutions.

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Weston State Hospital, West Virginia. If it weren’t for the bars on the window, you could almost mistake it for Downton Abbey. Payne’s methods did not generally include trespassing. Instead, he went through official channels and found that once he showed a sincere interest in the architecture and history of these properties, he was usually granted full access.

But Payne saw beyond “the superstitions and third-hand horror stories” that these places inspire and using his trained eye noted their “outward similarity to great resort hotels of the era.” A verdant setting and dignified atmosphere, along with occupational therapy and the arts, figured prominently in the planning of the early hospitals built in the latter part of the 1800s. Such institutions were often proudly self-sustaining and Payne has numerous views of on-site farms, greenhouses, vocational workshops, a fish hatchery, etc. There’s even a shot of a kitchen in Pennsylvania’s Danville State with five enormous vats that were solely used for making sauerkraut. This original idea of the therapeutic value of work and culture, and its palliative effect on mental illness, later when out of fashion.

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Noble Hall theater, Connecticut Valley State Hospital

Eventually psychotropic drugs came onto the scene, but as author/neurologist Oliver Sacks asserts in the book’s introduction, a well-intentioned notion of patient’s rights replaced the “normalizing” effect of the work that was now seen as exploitation and left them with little more to do than to watch television. The resulting warehouse effect left us with the “snakepit” image that most associate with state hospitals. Sacks’ essay, while certainly astute and filled with first-hand knowledge (he worked at Bronx State Hospital for 25 years), does seem a little rosy at time—for instance, there is no mention of the controversial (over)use of electroshock therapy. Still, the idea of these grand old asylums being a place where one could be both “mad and safe” is compelling considering the hasty deinstitutionalization that started in the 70s and 80s. The lack of sufficient transitional services—and medication that controlled the worst impulses of serious mental illness but left users unmotivated—burdened the U.S. with a large homeless population that later economic problems only exacerbated.

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The self-contained skyline of Danvers State at sundown: the day of wrecking ball was not far off.

The melancholy beauty of Payne’s photography, and his ability to sense the unlucky lives that played out there, are masterful from the first page to the poignant postscript of this amazing book. That closing section is a Payne-penned text and photographic record of the 2006 demolition of the iconic Danvers State Hospital, the model for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium and later the Arkham Asylum of the Batman universe. (Only the façade of the main administration building was saved for the subsequent condo complex). Readers of the previous installments know of my focus on DSH—I grew up three miles away—and it turns out that Payne has a personal connection as well. He grew up in Boston and had relatives in Danvers. Whenever visiting them, he saw its hilltop profile as an “ancient, far-away castle” from the window of the family car driving down I-95. (The parallel and closer U.S. Route One passed directly below the slope of the hospital’s perimeter farmland). Payne writes of his reluctance to speak regretfully of the demolition to workers but they were not unsympathetic: they realize they are knocking down a historic and unique structure, one to be succeeded by “a place, just like any other.” As Payne puts it, “How ironic it was that so much care and effort was put into a structure intended solely for society’s outcasts.” Even keeping in mind the mistakes that followed, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a return to that kind of commitment to the more unfortunate among us anytime soon, if ever.

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Also recommended by Christopher Payne is North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City. Sitting amid strong East River cross-currents near Riker’s Island and Hell Gate, the island was long a site for hospitals and infirmaries (its most famous patient was Typhoid Mary)as well as the infamous 1904 General Slocum steamboat disaster, when a combination burning/sinking killed 1000 people. Payne’s vivid photographs of this long-uninhabited spit of land, depicts a sort of slow-motion battle between nature and the built environment.

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North Brother Island

The Pale Beyond, Part Three

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It’s been about ten months since part two of this series. In the long interval before this concluding entry, a long unfolding social problem has received more and more media coverage. A front-page headline last September in the Wall Street Journal summed it up rather neatly; “The New Asylums: Jails Swell with Mentally Ill.” The story tracked a pattern from the mass closings of outsized state hospitals in the 70s and 80s to the subsequent rise in the homeless population as many patients went from overcrowded (and sometimes abusive) facilities to no care at all. The ideal of a community-based middle way never really took hold and while advances in pharmaceuticals to treat psychological ailments have helped those with less severe cases, many others fell between the cracks during that process and in the years since. The situation just seems to get worse. Today, as I was getting set to put up this post, a major page-one report in the New York Times detailed the severe injuries suffered by 129 inmates at the hands of correctional staff at the huge Riker’s Island jail between the Bronx and Queens. A full 77 per cent of those inmates had been diagnosed with mental illness.

Obviously, this is a difficult problem and a tough one to get right. No one wants to go back to the warehousing asylums of old, where people could be committed for an indefinite stay on some flimsy pretense, like vagrancy or for being a troubled child that a parent could no longer deal with. But this downward spiral of insufficient mental health resources, underemployment, homelessness, drug abuse and petty crime invariably leading to incarceration is disheartening if not scandalous. Where’s the proper middle ground?

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I recently made a couple of visits to historic Tewksbury Hospital, the prominent Old Administration Building of which, seen at the top, was built in 1894 in bewitching Queen Anne style. It’s been continuously in operation since 40 years before that, first as an almshouse (Anne Sullivan lived there before becoming Helen Keller’s tutor and friend) and then used for the treatment and containment of contagious diseases. Although it was operated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and mental health care did figure in the mix throughout its history, it was never a state hospital in the way we would come to think of it—the overcrowded and malignant institutions on large campuses that have in their closed state become havens for urban explorers. But when one of the more infamous such places (Danvers State Hospital, as discussed in previous installments of this series) closed in 1992, the Mass. Dept. of Mental Health moved from there to Tewksbury and—along with the Dept. of Public Health—established the Public Health Museum there two years later.

The museum is tucked into one section of the Old Administration Building’s first level. This ground floor is a beautifully restored wood-paneled interior that the unfortunate people being admitted here never got to see, if a preserved sign near the front entrance is any indication.

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Much of the exhibit space is given over to showing the evolving history of methods for treatment of physical maladies, and you can see antique wheelchairs and an iron lung for real. But another room shows a similar backstory for mental health treatment. This will be the chilling highlight for many visitors. The curators, to their credit, do not shy away from showing patient treatments that nowadays would be considered barbaric or shocking. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have a mannequin strapped down to a bed to show any and all comers exactly what insulin-induced coma therapy looked like back in the day:

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Another interesting factoid I learned there: Danvers State once had a baseball team.
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You’re free to stroll the grounds at Tewksbury, which has an old formal gateway and other buildings of architectural interest. But it’s still an everyday working hospital. People ‘round my neck of the woods who want to get a feel for one of the classic creepy institutions can head south of Boston, where the isolated ghost town-sized Medfield State Hospital has been opened for people who want to have a walkabout. This is one of the few places I know that have done this, maybe as a co-opting measure for the hundreds of people who have seen these places as targets for infiltration. Of course, rules state that going inside the boarded buildings is strictly verboten. Still, it’s a great way for us urban-explorer dabblers to daytrip without worrying about getting nicked for trespassing. Now made safe for family excursions, I took along Ryan as my urban-explorer-in-training and lens-changing assistant.

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Although drastic methods like insulin or shock therapy may have been seen as necessary to control the worse-off patients, the power that comes with such authority still tempts abuse as we found out recently here in Massachusetts. Bridgewater State Hospital is site of Frederick’s Wiseman’s muckraking and groundbreaking 1967 documentary “Titicut Follies” (see Part 2 for more). It was reported in June that BSH was in danger of losing its national recognized hospital accreditation after it was found staff had significantly increased the use of isolation and strapping, even after the 2009 death of a patient during the application of restraints. Granted, Bridgewater is actually a medium-security prison that happens to house the most severely mentally-ill people in the state. But it also pointed out the thorny no-man’s land that exists between incarceration and the proper levels of mental health treatment. After a ban of “Titicut Follies” that lasted a quarter-century for “invading the privacy” of inmates (even though he had full clearances), Massachusetts courts finally allowed Wiseman to air his devastating expose of institutional abuse as long as he included a disclaimer at the end saying conditions have since approved at Bridgewater. The director’s one-sentence disclaimer, blankly using that very phrase, spoke volumes.

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Walking off the grounds at Medfield State, we caught view of the above. Who wrote this? Driving away, thoughts bounced around on different angles. Was it a mocking ex-inmate, a droll site worker, an urban explorer? There are certain people who get creeped out at the thought of these sites of suffering being converted into semi-affluent residential communities (possible sales blurb: “Nowadays, you would have to be crazy NOT to live here”) and the sign seemed to reflect that. That didn’t seem to affect folks who streamed into the old Danvers State property, re-purposed by Avalon Communities.

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“And over there is where they invented the full frontal lobotomy. Care for a swim?”

This spring I snuck onto the perimeter of the now-closed Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass. (see part 2), to visit a geographical feature that had always intrigued me but that I’ve never been able to classify. It began just off to the side of the Fernald Volunteer Center, a veritable Boo Radley house that despite its disrepair, always seemed vaguely occupied. During the time we lived on a street just across the way, I’d often turn my bike into a mowed section of field that dipped down below the level of Trapelo Road and continued for several hundred yards. I would pedal along a meandering path behind the also-closed daycare place, and through a wooded section that then opened up into a boulevard-wide lawn that undulated in sunny seclusion before returning to the gloomy main grounds, where once thousands of unfortunate (and usually quite young) patients lived. Until recently, even when there was only a couple of dozen patients left on the vast campus, someone dutifully mowed this obscure stretch of land on a regular basis. Thinking of the shaded sanatorium walks of old, I wondered if this had been a place where patients were brought to for a “country” walk. It would have been a brief respite—if it ever even happened—for a cruelly exploited class of luckless people who were otherwise liable to be the subjects of unconsented experiments: the children who were fed radioactive isotopes or autistic kids given doses of LSD for months on end. Soon this place will cover itself up, unseen and all but forgotten but leaving a lot of questions in the air about what’s left to do after all the hell holes are abandoned in place.

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The Pale Beyond, Part 2

(Watch for Part 3, coming up in early June, 2014!)

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Last One Standing: The Met State Administration Building, August 2013

In Part One, I talked about growing up not far from the legendary Danvers State Hospital, the castle-like institution that loomed over U.S. Route One about twenty miles north of Boston. As kids we didn’t know much, if anything, about how idealistic new methods for treating the mentally ill devised in the late 19th century eventually yielded an abusive hellhole by the middle of the 20th underneath those baleful Victorian spires. What we did know was that it had a very creepy vibe and woe to them who should ever end up being admitted there. I was recently reminded by my sister Pam that my mother would warn us kids that she would “end up in the nuthouse” if we didn’t stop misbehaving, something that we would not want to have on our conscience. But that never erased Danvers State’s morbid fascination, and its strangely alluring infamy spread far and wide in later decades.

So was it coincidence or confluence when, fast-forwarding to 2001, I found myself living off of Trapelo Road in Waltham? Of course my wife and I bought the house for all the right reasons. Our son was born the previous fall and it was an affordable starter home only ten miles west of Boston. It also backed up to a huge tract of conservation land, accessible through a convenient hole in the chain link fence that acted as its border. I was well aware that the sprawling Metropolitan State Hospital, closed less than a decade before, lay in glorious ruin nearby. The conservation area’s trails and fire roads were a great place to mountain bike and a perfect backdoor portal to the grounds as a security trailer had been placed at the old official entrance. I was soon up there with my camera.

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The sun sets on Met State, August 2001

Met State was a magnet for urban explorers braver than me (willing to go inside buildings and/or after dark) who came away with great photos and videos to be seen online. My favorite was the brilliant short film simply called “Met State”, made by Waltham-based Bryan Papciak, a tour de force of stop-motion effects and optical printing. (See it at vimeo.com/13646263). For me, it was more a place to criss-cross on my bike before dipping back down onto the wooded trails. But off the main section was an area that always freaked me out. It was a group of about ten long, uniform brick buildings (almost like an older-style housing project) that were connected and arranged around a grassy rectangle. I will have to dig up the video I once took (for part 3?), cycling around it with one hand on the bar and the other holding a camcorder. It took several minutes to circle these barracks that were called the CTG Unit. Despite its immense size it was reportedly so overcrowded with patients that some were housed in the hallways. It was overwhelming to try and think about the sum total of mental distress that these buildings once contained.

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CTG Unit and graffiti, 2001

The northeast corner of Waltham was historically rural and eventually the farms gave way to several mostly state-run institutions. Met State was not alone there as a receptacle of human misery. Adjacent to it was the snake pit known as the Gaebler Children’s Center, closed since 1992 and the top floors of which could be seen from our back deck during leafless seasons. It was demolished a few years ago, its new role as a link in a regional greenbelt conflicting with the oft-ignored “No Trespassing” signs.

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Like at Danvers State, pressure from relatives of deceased former patients have persuaded officials to at least place signage at anonymous gravesites.

Just across the town line in Belmont is the more upscale McLean Hospital, immortalized (though not named) in former patient James Taylor’s hit “Fire and Rain” as well as by the book and film “Girl, Interrupted.” Most prominent among this cluster of institutions (the “sadlands” as my wife called it) was the historic Fernald School and its sweeping 200-acre campus. Fernald was our first public institution for the mentally retarded and opened in 1848 back when its patients could still be called “idiots, morons and simpletons.” It was still open but in a much diminished capacity. I believe less than a dozen patients (considered the most severely disabled residents in the whole state) remain to this day as the state, the city and citizen’s groups wrestle with the ultimate fate of this valuable real estate.

Recently closed to public access, the campus is still easily entered over ground and I poked along the perimeter a few months ago on a suitably gray day. It may be the last time I set foot there before its likely transformation into something like the “apartment community” built by the Avalon Company at Met State, where the gloomy inner courtyard of the CTG Unit is now the family-friendly “Great Lawn.”

The grounds of Fernald were shady and reassuringly pleasant as was the recuperative ideal of the 19th century.

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School’s out forever: Fernald grounds, April 2013

Still, many of the patients here were children and, judging from a documentary produced several years back by Boston’s PBS station, it’s amazing how easy it was—for the better part of a century—to have a vulnerable family member or ward of state committed here for an indefinite stay. Once admitted, they were often treated by medical researchers as “cheap and available test subjects”, some even being fed radioactive isotopes. Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 direct-cinema classic, “Titicut Follies”, shows similar travesties taking place at the Bay State’s most infamous such facility, Bridgewater State Hospital. A place that housed many of the most dangerous criminals (the Boston Strangler was housed there for a spell) it was also a dumping ground for unfortunate forgotten men caught up in unusual and suspect circumstances. One example, from the BSH Wikipedia entry, tells of a lowly street vendor in his late 20’s who first was sent there for painting a horse to look like a zebra to draw attention to his fruit stall. After being picked up a second time for drunkenness, he was sent back to Bridgwater and died there of old age. In “Titicut Follies”, Wiseman follows the story of one sane-looking man, likely put there on a vagrancy rap (and coerced into taking strong anti-psychotic drugs), desperate to get out and periodically confronting doctors in the exercise yard in the film’s only YouTube clip.

When this man gets before an unsympathetic panel, we see exactly how these unconscionable policies play out as his opposition to hospital policy is quickly written off as denial and justified fears of incarceration in a place that resembles a medieval dungeon is termed paranoid schizophrenia. God only knows what happened to him.

But I’m getting far afield into a subject I’m no expert on. Please see the full “Titicut Follies” if you ever get a chance (an expose labeled by a court as an invasion of patient privacy, it was long banned and only received a home video release in 2007) A little more readily available is Martin Scorcese’s recent pulp-fiction fantasia “Shutter Island” which features a haunted WWII vet turned Fed agent (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigating a missing patient/inmate at the titular asylum. I was a bit skeptical, if only because as a former location scout I scoffed at the computer-generated Alcatraz-on-steroids that is supposed to sit at the outer reaches of Boston Harbor. Granted, some real harbor locales were used as well, esp. the old Fort Andrews on Peddock’s Island. Although a bit too lurid for its own good (apparently to hold the attention of sensory-overloaded 21st century viewers) Scorcese does touch upon the insidious, Catch-22 methods of so long used by such institutions.

I wonder why these places always seem to be looming just over my shoulder. In my hometown of Salem, Mass. there were once shaded walks that led from the various institutions on the base of Salem Neck out to its point. For the last century it’s been the location of Willows Park, long loved by area residents for its eateries, arcades, kiddie rides and breezy outlooks to Beverly Harbor and the Atlantic. The name of the park suggests the former utility of the giant trees for shading convalescing patients on a stroll from the nearby facility. The first was the charmingly named Pest House for smallpox sufferers in the 1700s (way before the park and its famous chop suey sandwiches). Various almshouses also stood there over the long stretch of the 19th century. My father remembers the poor farm that was in the area when he was a kid. Later, only one building remained, one of the lesser-known works of architect Charles Bullfinch, designer of the Mass. State House and the U.S. Capitol expansion. It was known in its final incarnation as the Chronic Care and Rehabilitation Hospital. My father’s grandmother was a patient there in her last years and the place closed in 1970 and stood there at least until the mid-80s as the date stamp on the back of this photo I took was 1983.

Pest House

When it came time to break ground for the inevitable condo development a few years later, a local resident protested to builders and city officials that they would disturb the pauper’s cemetery on the edge of the property. As recently described by this longtime Salem resident in an online town forum, the sad neglect of this graveyard meant it was known mostly to local kids who explored the vacated shoreline of the cove there. Met with denial by the authorities, the resident who posted this comment claims he was later vindicated when the excavator started digging up human bones!

But my childhood visit to see my great-grandmother was not the last time I set foot inside that building on the Pest House site. In 1977, an older friend in a clique I ran with at the time headed an obscure youth-services program out of a first floor office. The rest of the building was empty. As one of the few events this friend ever managed to pull together, she screened a movie against a sheet affixed to the back of the building. We sat probably a stone’s throw away from the cemetery that remained undetected in the pale beyond just behind us. The film was “Night Watch” a 1967 chiller starring Elizabeth Taylor as a woman who has seen a terrible crime that no one wants to hear about. The guy who wrote that post must know the feeling.

The Pale Beyond (Part One)

The Pale Beyond Part 3 is Coming in June 2014

Danvers State

(The shuttered Danvers State Hospital in the late Nineties. Danvers State was once dubbed “the bad vibes capital of the Northeast” by the Boston Phoenix. I certainly felt it that day. Click on photos for larger view.)

To expand a little bit on the subject of this week’s selected documentary is difficult. But to expand on it “a lot of bit” (as my son used to say) is far easier. The topic of abandoned state-run institutions, and their distinctly spooky allure, has really taken off in the Internet age. The timing was perfect. Many such places, which warehoused society’s forgotten people in sprawling complexes of gothic-type structures, closed in the 1980s, in the age of Reagan-era budget cuts and a shift to community-based care in the treatment of people with mental and physical disabilities. The older state facilities had usually been built on leafy campuses on the margins of metropolitan areas and were soon infiltrated by members of the new urban explorer movement, an activity that combines thrill-seeking with amateur anthropology. Some of the participants were also talented photographers. Finding an audience, and each other, on websites like DarkPassage.com, these people gave a whole new meaning to the term “asylum seeker.”

In our age of autism awareness and 10K charity races for most major medical maladies, it’s fascinating to go back and see the lax standards that prevailed just a couple of generations ago. Willowbrook State School, featured in “Cropsey”, was known for living conditions that are hard to believe in today’s wised-up world. Robert F. Kennedy made a fact-finding visit there in 1965 while U.S. Senator from New York, famously referring to it as a “snake pit.” But his suggested improvements were slow in coming. Several years later, a guy named Geraldo Rivera first gained national attention when he brought a local news crew into the overcrowded facility, filming mentally disabled children, some naked, writhing on the floor in agony. (John Lennon and Yoko Ono saw the televised report and were moved to do a pair of benefit concerts—later released as “Live in New York City”—that were to be Lennon’s last full-length live shows). Even with these exposes, and further revelations by Staten Island newspapers, the last of Willowbrook’s residents were not moved out until 1987.

I grew up not far from one of the most infamous of such places. Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts was opened in 1878 and from my earliest days I remember it looming high above U.S. Route One on a dome-shaped hill surrounded by sloping farmland. Later in life I would find out that it inspired horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Asylum, which in turn was incorporated into the Batman universe. Interesting, as the place was one of many built on the idealized Kirkbride Plan. These imposing, gabled Victorian compounds had a staggered “bat-wing” layout that were meant to allow for maximum, beneficial sunshine for mentally-ill patients who were to be treated with new and enlightened methods.

Unfortunately, Danvers State became better known for electroshock and frontal lobotomies than for enlightenment. Again, overcrowding had a lot to do with the deteriorating conditions, as people with symptoms nowadays treatable with prescription drugs were shoehorned in with legitimately dangerous patients.

Growing up in West Peabody some four miles away, we kids amused ourselves with scare stories about escaped lunatics from the “Nut House” who made their way down the hill to the apocryphal Danvers Road, a shadowy lover’s lane. Thankfully, our tall tales of the unfortunate couples who parked there were more imaginative than our naming of the road.

session 9

In 2000, I was working for Scout Productions in Boston as a location manager. One day, director Brad “Next Stop Wonderland” Anderson was in a pre-production meeting with a few others at a table near the desk where I was working. I had already heard something of the project that would become the 2001 asylum thriller “Session 9” and I took the liberty of chipping in an idea or two. That would have been a great movie to work on but I was a location scout and none was needed in this case. That’s because the entire movie was to be filmed at Danvers State. Anderson had taken advantage of an initiative by the Massachusetts Film Office to attract filmmakers by allowing free use of any abandoned state-run property. The plot concerned an asbestos-removal crew who get swept up in the evil spirits still radiating from the ruins. Although there was a fairly big star (David Caruso) in the cast, the real main attraction was obvious. From the aerial shots of its massive gothic outline, right down to the skin-crawling claustrophobia of its service tunnels, you just can’t get enough of this place. Although “Session 9” was hampered a bit by its under-developed narrative, it’s still a decent psychological thriller and a valuable time capsule since the site was redeveloped into generic-looking condos. At least the façade of the central section was kept, as seen here in a recent photo I took.
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While the behavior of some patients at these places was undoubtedly beyond the pale, the sad legacy of these state hospitals is that untold thousands were committed for reasons that would seem outrageous today (the proverbial “nervous condition” was oft-used). Cast off by unscrupulous or overwhelmed family members and ill-treated by the state, many ruined lives ended there unceremoniously. As a final indignity they often were buried on the grounds in plots marked only by a number.

Here’s my son surveying the spartan landscape of the patient’s cemetery at Danvers State.
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In the foreground is one of the recently installed memorial markers. The inscribed numbers are on small gravestones are set flush to the ground. Matching up the numbers to names is not very easy when closed-down institutions kept the records. There are efforts underway by surviving relatives to have the state do more to identify the deceased. But that’s another tangent of this topic, which has legs like few others. More of that in Part Two….