Its doors and windows are boarded up, some of the heavy slate has fallen off its 119 year old roofs, guards in a small trailer keep watch outside its entrance, thrill seekers break in at night and film for Youtube an eerie walk through some of its buildings, movie directors use its buildings and magnificent landscape to make movies like Shutter Island and The Box ... it is uniquely Medfield and it is the Medfield State Hospital.
Begun in 1892, it opened its doors in May of 1896 and closed them on April 3, 2003. In between those years, thousands of residents lived, loved, laughed, suffered and died in many of its 58 buildings. Thousands of support staff, doctors, nurses, and psychiatric personnel worked there; at its height, 500-900 at a time.
When it first opened on over 900 acres of land in the northwest corner of Medfield, it was officially called the Medfield Insane Asylum and it was built to relieve the overcrowding of other state facilities. Within 10 years there were 1,554 patients at the Medfield institution. The Medfield Insane Asylum was the first state mental hospital in Massachusetts to be built on the “cottage plan,” with individual buildings to allow for better light and ventilation. In order to make living conditions more homelike, sleeping quarters were on the second floor and sitting and work rooms were on the ground floor.
At first, the staff worked on the wards and lived with the patients, usually sleeping in the attics of the buildings where they worked. For a time inmate death rate averaged four per week. Trustees instructed the asylum superintendent to secure slate headstones for patient graves and to pay the bills incurred for building the tomb in the asylum lot at Vine Lake Cemetery. Up until the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, patients not buried in their hometowns were buried in Medfield’s Vine lake Cemetery. After 1918 a hospital cemetery was built on state land near the Charles River, which can still be seen inside a grove of trees off Route 27 towards the Sherborn town line.
Farming took place on the hundreds of acres of land surrounding the campus. A farmhouse was built across Canal Street (now Hospital Road) in 1901. It served as living quarters for the head farmer and his family as well as 14 farm hands and 30 patients. The farm played an important role in the lives of the patients and the economy of the hospital until farming was stopped in the late 1960’s. For many years the produce and the milk from the dairy herds supplied food and milk for the residents, not only at Medfield but for many of the surrounding state institutions as well.
In 1902 Medfield opened a two-year training program for nurses which later became a three-year program in 1914 with students affiliated at Boston City Hospital. It was in 1902 that the hospital joined the other facilities as an admission and treatment center rather than a transfer institution to relieve overcrowding at other facilities. In addition to the adult patients, there were also between 6-10 emotionally disturbed children admitted to the facility; the youngest just 4-years old. In 1914 the name was officially changed to Medfield State Hospital. During the 1930-1940’s the hospital became overcrowded itself with over 2,300 patients; many years the hospital population was larger than the Town of Medfield itself.
In the 1950’s new and revolutionary psychotropic drugs were introduced into health care, drastically changing the care of the mentally ill. Because of these new drugs, more patients were able to be discharged. Under the leadership of Dr. Harold Lee, Medfield gained national recognition for its rehabilitation program which incorporated a “step-system” of increasing independent living situations on campus and a vocational program to increase work skills for transition into the community.
During the Kennedy Administration, in the early 1960s, Congress passed a law requiring that all mental health patients in the United States be housed or hospitalized in the least restrictive environment possible. By the mid-1970’s most of the patients were moved from the hospital to community based halfway houses. From the 1970’s until its closing, the population continued to drop until it was under 200.
The state then made the decision to close the Medfield facility. A State Hospital Re-use Committee was formed by the town but later dismissed by the selectmen. Selectmen entered into an agreement with the state to have 440 units of housing built on the campus. Concern expressed by residents, most notably former re-use committee member and former selectmen John Harney, abutter Bill Massaro and John Thompson of the State Hospital Environmental Review Committee, has caused the state to begin to address a number of environmental concerns at the hospital site. In the final analysis the issue of what the future of the former hospital will look like will have to come before town voters at Town Meeting.