Danvers State Hospital
Danvers, MA ~ 1874
One of our most interesting and recent sources of reclaimed wood is the Danvers State Hospital. Construction began on this incredible red brick Victorian Gothic style structure in 1874. Soonafter, in 1878, patients were admitted. Although it was architecturally designed by Boston’s Nathaniel Bradlee, its functional design was informed and inspired by the theories of then-famous and renowned physician Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride’s theories on the treatment of the nation’s insane greatly influenced most of the state hospitals built in the mid to late 1800s, which became known as Kirkbride buildings.
During the mid 1800s, mental illnesses were considered to be conditions best treated outside the home, in facilities such as Danvers. Hospitals were moved from the cities and into rural areas where patients could enjoy the views of forests, farms, fields, and gardens. Dr. Kirkbride was, at the time, a progressive proponent of what was termed “moral treatment;” a theory based on the respectful and compassionate treatment of the insane. Kirkbride believed that environments in beautiful settings, where patients could enjoy gainful occupation and a mentally stimulating daily routine, would promote mental health. Insanity was understood to be a curable, clinical disease, and furthermore it was the obligation of each state to provide humane places for treatment for its citizens with this condition where they could receive all the advantages possible from enlightened care.
At the time that the Danvers facility was built, other state-run hospitals were exceeding their patient capacities. Danvers was a multi-acre, self-contained facility that comprised of planting fields and over forty buildings, including medical, office, and dormitory structures, as well as workshops, storage, and farming buildings. There were also chapels and cottages for staff and their families.
The hospital was originally constructed to house 450-500 residents, but over time as many as 2,000 to 2,400 patients were treated for a range of illnesses including dementia, depression, and substance abuse. Allegations of patient abuse and deplorable living conditions were common. 20th century treatments included electric shock, water immersion, and lobotomies.
In the mid 1900s, as a result of changes in treatment philosophy, including alternative treatment methods, deinstitutionalization, and mental health care based in individual communities, the number of patients at Danvers began declining. The hospital finally closed in 1992, after over 100 years of use.
Discussions had begun in 1981 between town and state officials to investigate redevelopment opportunities for the architecturally significant and historically rich complex, which is on the National Historic Register. Years later, a local oversight group decided that developer AvalonBay Communities should be allowed to purchase the property for redevelopment. In 2003, AvalonBay signed a purchase agreement with the state of Massachusetts for the 75-77 acre property. Their plan was to redevelop the property, saving one-third of the 313,000 square foot main Kirkbride Complex (the central tower building and one wing on either side) and demolish the remaining buildings on the property. The retained portion of the Kirkbride building would be gutted and rehabbed into new administrative space and residential units. In the place of the demolished structures would be built additional condos and apartments. In total the land on the upper hill would hold 483-526 residential units. On a lower part of the property, 100,000 square feet of commercial space would follow.
For many years after the hospital’s closing the buildings sat empty, visited by many trespassers, including people in search of shelter. This twice resulted in arsonous fires at the complex. The elements also took their toll on the buildings, which ultimately fell into incredible disrepair with damaged roofs, collapsed ceilings, and gaping holes in the floors. As with many such abandoned buildings, Danvers became a high-risk area with doubtful structural integrity.
Meanwhile, intense resistance to the development plan had been generated by various groups – primarily preservationists who were opposed to the demolition of the other two-thirds of the enormous Kirkbride complex, which they felt had irreplaceable architectural and historic value. Their efforts, which included an 11th hour lawsuit, were ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the demolition and development project from proceeding. After years of negotiations, AvalonBay took ownership of the property on December 14th, 2005. Demolition began in January of 2006, and the final building was demolished in June of the same year.
Photos are from opacity.us and John Gray photography: grayphotography.net.