I wrote the following article for my school newspaper, The Pennon, at North Shore Community College:
Lament for a Loss:
By: Avril Duncan
On December 15th, 2005 it became official that the property grounds on which Danvers State Insane Asylum lies had finally been sold. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After 22 years of debate between developers, preservationists and the Town of Danvers, and 14 years of debate against AvalonBay the transaction was passed.
Bought by AvalonBay Communities, Inc. for $12 million the 77-acre site has already been attacked by wrecking balls and cranes. The history, beauty and memories of DSIA are now coming to an end.
The property area and beautiful grounds are now crowded with heavy machinery equipment, workers, and police. The police are also on watch more than in past years as they don’t want anyone on the property for a last look or to try and interfere with a legal and binding deal. Like it or not, they own the property and we as preservationists have lost the battle.
From an opposite perspective it is correct to state that having an abandoned insane asylum in our town is a disgrace to it. As beautiful as the architecture is, the structure is a reminder of how Danvers failed to take care of its patients in need of help. The hospital was closed on June 24th, 1992 after severe budget cuts to the mental healthcare system.
“Danvers resident John Archer, one of the most vocal critics of the project, said officials missed a perfect opportunity to restore a structure with rich history and fascinating architecture,” as quoted on DSIA’s official website, Archer had a strong belief that the hospital could be rebuilt for another attempt at mental healthcare. But the town doesn’t have the funds to rebuild a hospital complex or their reputation.
The buildings themselves have attracted many a crowd of people and were featured in the movie Session9 in which DSIA was the setting. Unfortunately since January 12, 2006 the following buildings have been destroyed; Our Lady of the Hill Chapel (Built 1955), Lukes Chapel (1964), Female Nurses Home (1930), the Bonner Medical Building (1955), the Mechanics Garage (1927), the Male Tubercular (1927) and Male Nurses Home (1907), the Laundry Building (1912), as well as the J-section and I-section ward annexes of the main Kirkbride complex (1878) that was named after Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride who believed that the beautiful scenery restored patients to a more natural "balance of the senses."
Dr. Kirkbride had a vision, and he turned that vision into what became known as the “Kirkbride Plan.” He built hospitals and asylums across most of the U.S., most of which are now abandoned. There are a small number of his buildings that still stand, and are in use. But after the nationwide budget cuts on the healthcare system Kirkbride’s empire was beginning to fall. The Clarinda and Independence Kirkbrides are still currently in use as psychiatric care facilities. Cherokee is used in part as a prison and in part as a psychiatric care facility. The Columbus, Elgin, and Nevada Kirkbrides have all been destroyed.
A copy of John Archer’s letter was posted on DSIA’s official website. In good spirit he writes, “I want future generations to know that there were people who fought bravely to preserve the Kirkbride including Richard Trask, Danvers town archivist; the Danvers Preservation Commission; Michael Ramseur; Kathy Morano; Wayne Eisenhauer; Charles Wilson; and Pat Deegan (a former resident of Danvers State), along with John Gray and Mike Turcotte, urban explorer-historians).” A petition had been written and continued to gain followers until a final count of 5382 signatures were added. These people as well as others took their case to court to try to prevent the sale of the property. After the two attempts with the courts had failed, spending $25k trying to stop the development they lost the battle.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will receive $3.2 million of the sale money to build affordable housing for Department of Mental Health clients. About $6 million will go into the state's general fund. Danvers will receive about $2 million, which will be set aside for education, historic preservation and affordable housing. The town will also see a boost of about $1 million in annual property tax revenues. And 70 units will be added to the town's affordable housing stock.
So, what does the future hold for the grounds of DSIA? Well, AvalonBay plans to build 497 apartment units on the site and demolish most of the Kirkbride building.
The good news there is that not all of the Kirkbride complex will be demolished. The official website reports that only two thirds of the Kirkbride building will be torn down. Scott Dale, president of AvalonBay, said that they will leave up the main administration building, the center of the Kirkbride complex. Since the sale of the property brought in money to the state, some of it will be used to make life for mental patients more comfortable and affordable. About 50% of the tax profit will go to the High School Stabilization Fund and be used to expand the facility on Cabot Road.
In the end of this article I hope I have instilled the memory of DSIA. I regret never having the chance to see it or know it while it was in its prime. I have friends and teachers who had been a part of DSIA while it was open and I hope they will remember it as it was at its peak and not the downfall of a North Shore mental healthcare program. This article was not meant to conflict, or debate the event of Danvers’ loss. I wrote this in hopes that we will all keep the beautiful property in the back of our minds.
Please go to http://www.danversstateinsaneasylum.com for more about the history of the hospital, recent news, photos of the buildings, tunnels and grounds, as well as a video taken last year.