Auction an opportunity to own piece of history

Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Just before the wrecking ball came down on Northampton State Hospital’s Old Main building some six years ago, members of the city’s Historical Commission and other history buffs had one final mission — collect some artifacts.

Member Barbara Blumenthal recalls pacing the interior and exterior of the building — and other worn-down structures that were slated for demolition to make way for the long-awaited redevelopment of the campus — and pointing out anything she thought might eventually be used to memorialize an important chapter in Northampton’s long history.

Not knowing how those memorial efforts would take shape, she thought of items that might make for a nice replica of a patients’ or nursing quarters or other items to display in a museum.

“We were pretty broad in our sweep,” Blumenthal said.

They collected wooden boxes, auditorium chairs, game tables and even a urinal and bathtub. They preserved larger, more expensive items like a cupola and a finial, and smaller items with little monetary value like old boxes of cigarettes and engraved cutlery.

Turns out, after collecting dust for most of the last decade, none of these items will be needed now that a special memorial committee has decided to restore and reinstall a historic fountain in front of where Old Main used to sit. The fountain will be the centerpiece of a new pocket park dedicated to the memory of the patients, staff and history of the hospital.

With that decision made, the Historical Commission turned its attention to the long-forgotten artifacts that were collecting dust in various locations throughout the city. Rather than throwing or giving the items away, the commission decided to put them up for bid and use the proceeds for its fountain restoration project.

Commissioners said the auction is an opportunity to own a small piece of history.

“Some of the items are usable, but some are more, ‘I want to own a piece of the state hospital,’” said Blumenthal. “For people who want to do that, we think this gives them a good chance.”

The auction began about two weeks ago and will end July 14-17, depending on the specific item. To view and bid on items, go to and enter “Northampton State Hospital” in the search box.

As of late last week, two items are the clear front-runners to bring in the most money. A wooden and copper cupola that sat atop one of the former cafeteria and recreation building has attracted 23 bids, including a high bid of $460.

The octagonal structure is about 9 feet at the base and 6 feet high with some damage to the wood and copper. The commission will require the buyer to keep the cupola in a location where it will be available for the public to see, such as inside a building that is open to the public or as part of an exterior building design.

Other popular items earning bids include a copper finial, a decorative ornament that had been on top of a part of Old Main. The finial has attracted 26 total bids, with a top offer of $410. The 3-foot high piece includes a detached top piece that could be welded back on to provide another 30 inches in height.

An old Edwards Company clock has garnered 33 bids, with a high of $101. The only other triple-digit bid is for $100 for an antique slab bath table.

Other items have few or no bidders and are available for $1, including a shower head, bed frame components, doors, tables, architectural woodworking, a sink and urinal.

Among the more unusual items are two cartons of Domino cigarettes. These cigarettes are “good until 1975” and have surgeon general’s warnings, according to the packaging.

David Drake, the commission’s current chairman, said that while there is no obvious use for a lot of the materials collected, he believes many of the items will appeal to some people’s sense of the historic nature of the state hospital.

“There was a lot of sentimentality because Old Main played such an important role in the city,” Drake said. “There was a well-intended effort and a sense that something should be saved.”

Sara Northrup was a key player in making sure many of the items avoided a junk pile. The one-time project engineer for MassDevelopment who managed the agency’s demolition contract, Northrup said there were some items she thought the city shouldn’t part with.

“I hate to see stuff go in the Dumpster,” Northrup said. “Some of these things have intrinsic historical value, and other items are just cool.”

MassDevelopment, the quasi-public agency overseeing redevelopment of the former hospital site, ended up giving the items to the city as it moved ahead with incrementally razing the buildings to make way for the campus’s makeover. MassDevelopment later had an auction company sell many other items that the city chose not to keep.

Northrup is happy that some of the items are drawing interest in the auction.

“That’s really exciting,” Northrup said. “There was a real effort on the part of MassDevelopment to save a lot of stuff. Anything that was not nailed down or was slightly interesting, we tried to save.”

Meanwhile, plans are moving ahead for the fountain restoration that, when complete sometime next year, may be reinstalled in its original location in front of the former Old Main. Workers recently found an old cement slab buried under plants that most believe was the foundation for the fountain.

The project to bring the cast-iron fountain home gained steam late last year when the City Council agreed to fund a $75,000 Community Preservation Act grant for the State Hospital Memorialization Committee.

The project is expected to cost about $120,000. Blumenthal said the commission has received about $2,500 in contributions for the project and is planning other fundraisers in addition to the auction.

Northampton State Hospital became the state’s third “lunatic hospital” in the mid-1850s. At its peak in the 1950s, the hospital housed 2,500 patients and had a staff of 500 doctors and other employees. There were 70 buildings on more than 500 acres.

The rise of psychotropic drugs in the 1960s and a lawsuit against the state led to a steady decline in the number of patients. The state Department of Mental Health began transferring surplus property in the 1970s, and in 1994, the hospital’s last 12 patients were reassigned and the facility closed.

Over time, former hospital buildings gradually succumbed to weather and decay and nearly all of them have been demolished. The site is now known as Village Hill Northampton, with homes and businesses on both sides of Route 66.


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