The uphill approach is an overgrown hash of tangled, graveled decay that ultimately gives way to an expanse of sparse spring green and scattered granite rubble; the pervading stillness of this place belies the proximity to Massachusetts State Route 66 and the Smith College athletic fields. A few small buildings remain, in varying states of decay, as a testament to the rich Elizabethan grandeur that once stood on this spot.
Northampton Lunatic Hospital, completed in 1858, was an ambitious implementation of the Kirkbride plan, and the third such hospital in the state to offer a chance of a “cure” to the mentally ill through a combination of fresh air, hard work and therapy. In the spirit of the emerging political-correctness which went hand in hand with the so-called moral cure, the hospital was rechristened Northampton State Hospital before the turn of the next century.
Severe overcrowding and the issues associated with emerging “modern” treatments in the early years of the twentieth century transformed the once bolstering atmosphere to one of more basic care. Though suffering from a lack of resources, the hospital wholeheartedly embraced the emerging ideology of the day and began utilizing such questionable methods as experimental pharmaceuticals, electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies.
Due to advancements in out-patient pharmaceutical treatments and a change in public perception of the treatment of mental illness as a whole, the patient population at Northampton State Hospital had dwindled considerably by the end of the twentieth century. Privatization of health care and an overall shift of focus to deinstitutionalization through social programs and occupational therapy led the closing of the hospital in 1993.
The Kirkbride structure – known as Old Main – and most of the surrounding buildings, which had housed over 2500 patients at the hospital’s peak, now stood empty. Like any abandoned space left to decay, the hospital drew its share of urban explorers, bored high school kids, and squatters. Redevelopment plans were proposed and rehashed and proposed again, whilst the forest and the ivy sought to reclaim their terrain. The neglected buildings faded from their quiet magnificence toward a crumbling state of dereliction, but still the plans for redevelopment languished, undecided upon and untouched on the Citizens’ Advisory Committee’s desk. Efforts to save and repair Old Main were met with prevarication and eventually denied, though the Kirkbride had earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places making it a very attractive potential investment.
Old Main was demolished in the last months of 2006.
What remains is a lamentable story starring an ambitious group of preservationists and artists, a committee that could have maybe, possibly, perchance done something, but did not, and an administration that sought to sanitize a perceived stain on their city’s spotless reputation of broad minded idealism. History, though, is inherently not to be sanitized, denied or forsaken, but rather to serve as an example for those who follow. We have a vital interest, if not a dire responsibility, to preserve these exemplars, these apotheoses of lessons learned and paradigms shifted, lest we dare to echo the mistakes of the past in perpetuum.