Construction of the third state institution for the insane in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began on March 15, 1856. On July 4th the cornerstone was laid amid celebrations of our 80th year of independence. For posterity a time capsule was embedded within the cornerstone where it would lay undisturbed on top of Hospital Hill for 150 years.
The first patients were received on August 16, 1858. Within 6 weeks the population would reach 220, most of whom were transfers from other institutions long overwhelmed on the eastern side of the state rather than admissions from the surrounding area. The original state hospital design specified a maximum of 200 patients, but this limit was raised to 250 by the state-wide hospital Commissioners even before the doors opened. After only two months of operating the Board of Trustees speculated that the limit could be raised to 300 patients.
HOUSE OF EARLE
The first superintendent Dr. Prince resigned in 1864 and Dr. Pliny Earle was selected as his replacement. Dr. Earle immediately began to cultivate a strong work therapy program by expanding the farm, constructing a greenhouse as well as other service oriented buildings. During his tenure Dr. Earle was consistently critical of claims regarding the nearly 100% cure rates of insanity reported by some of his peers, superintendents of other mental institutions which he detailed in his book The Curability of Insanity.
Fatefully Dr. Earle also contested the construction of massive asylums, specifically “the culpable wastefulness of the builders of Danvers [State] Hospital,” which had originally been designed for a maximum of 500 patients but only a few years after opening warehoused 700. When he retired in 1885 Dr. Earle was given an apartment within the asylum out of gratitude for his 21 years of service. The population at Northampton had reached 476 patients.
The turn of the century was marked with a change in name from the State Hospital at Northampton to the Northampton Insane Hospital, and two years later to Northampton State Hospital. Under superintendent John A. Houston construction on new buildings continued, including the 1900 stable, a cow barn in 1902, as well as infirmary wards built on either end of the hospital in 1902 and 1903.
In 1907, the same year Bishop’s Crook lamps were installed around the hospital grounds, A Mind That Found Itself was published. In it Clifford W. Beers, a former patient of several institutions argues that contrary to what the public had been led to believe, no one knew how to cure insanity. That year the population at Northampton stood at 726 patients.
In 1925 work began on Memorial Complex, the largest expansion of Northampton State Hospital, designed to accommodate up to 1000 patients. Set apart from the original “Old Main” section of the asylum, Memorial Complex became the focal point for most of the construction, expansions and later operations of Northampton State Hospital. Memorial Complex allowed the population to swell to more than 2100 patients in 1935.
After nearly a century of constant construction Northampton State Hospital only continued to grow. In 1952 the same year Thorazine, the first anti-psychotic was introduced 2,331 patients were served by 509 staff. In a few years the asylum reached approximately 2500 patients, the highest recorded concentration in the history of Northampton State Hospital. The Haskell building which today still serves as an office for the Department of Mental Health was added in 1959.
On January 6, 1978 the United States District Court approved the Brewster Consent Decree, also known as the Northampton Decree which made clear a patient’s constitutional right to treatment in the least restrictive environment possible. Under terms set forth in the Decree the State Hospital was to reduce the number of patients it served to 50 by 1981. This process, which ultimately led to the closure of the asylum would take 14 rather than 3 years.
The Northampton Decree also helped create human service programs funded on the State and Federal level. Human service agencies like The Center for Human Development (CHD) and Service Net began to fulfill some of the regional psychiatric service needs with innovative programs. However even today available funding and funding methodologies are only sufficient to treat a fraction of the number of patients incarcerated state and nation-wide under the State Hospital system.
In 1980 Northampton State Hospital registered its 64,500 admission while simultaneously attempting to reduce the total population. Patients were either reassigned to other, usually smaller facilities or were simply dismissed. Ex-patients entered a largely ignorant and sometimes hostile community, for some poverty and homelessness were as immediate as the city-wide controversy. Debate raged though the local news, in council meetings, and at dinner tables around Northampton.
After 130 years the wards of Old Main, the original hospital building were home only to silence and stillness when it was abandoned in 1986. Operations at Memorial Complex continued until 1993 when the last 12 patients were reassigned. Northampton State Hospital was officially closed.
Plans to preserve and reuse the buildings, particularly Old Main, had gained some popularity around the turn of the millennium. However city administrators only seriously considered demolition to redevelop the property.
In 2006 Old Main was finally torn down. During the demolition the cornerstone, and within it the time capsule were recovered. The surviving contents rest at Forbes Library. By the following summer Memorial Complex was gone.
Today a mixed apartment & condo development sit atop Hospital Hill where Old Main used to stand, which was renamed Village Hill for marketing purposes. The central parcel of the Memorial Complex side of campus was sold to Kollmorgen, a local defense contractor, before the company was sold to L3 Communications.