Northampton State Hospital project aims to commemorate those who lived, worked there (with timeline)

Last modified: Tuesday, November 26, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — While work to transform the former Northampton State Hospital continues, a dedicated group is working to ensure the century and a half the place served as treatment of the mentally ill— for better or worse — is never forgotten.

“People who have mental illness really are a very easily forgotten part of our society. So it’s not just about remembering this piece of Northampton history, but it’s about remembering a whole segment of the population,” said Joe Blumenthal, a member of the memorial committee and a neighborhood resident.

Blumenthal and others who serve on the state hospital’s memorial committee are determined that the population, and the place that so deeply impacted their lives, is remembered. They’ve settled on a monument from the hospital’s past that they believe will serve as a fitting tribute to patients and staff of the one-time sprawling, bustling hospital campus: the restoration of a large cast-iron fountain. First installed in 1876, the towering fountain long stood like a sentinel next to the entrance to Old Main, the original hospital building.

The project draws together people with ties to the hospital who live nearby, once worked there and are interested in public memorials. It includes a landscape architect and a couple dozen Smith College students. The committee hopes the public will return pieces of the fountain that may have taken as keepsakes over the years the hospital was being decommissioned and closed. (See related story.)

A cast iron lion’s head was returned to the committee this month by Hank Ross, a local real estate broker and longtime antiques dealer. Ross said he bought it years ago as part of an estate sale from a woman who said her father had been a painter at the hospital. Ross said he always had a feeling the fountain may be restored, so he kept the piece awaiting the day.

Since the hospital closed 20 years ago, the grounds have undergone massive change — with former hospital buildings torn down and upscale houses, affordable apartments and quarters for a variety of businesses built on the land.

Missing has been any connection to the history of the site. That will change when the memorial — a $145,000 project funded with $75,000 in Community Preservation Act dollars (the rest raised through private donations) is created.

“This land that Mass Development is developing is a gorgeous piece of real estate and it’s going to be a place where people make their homes and businesses,” said Blumenthal, who lives nearby at 39 Chapel St. and serves on the Citizens Advisory Council to the hospital project. “Nobody is going to give any thought at all about what happened before.”

He believes the memorial will go a long way toward helping people remember what happened before.

Moving the project from idea to reality has been a long haul. The committee has been working since 2009, according to Jackie Duda of 56 Laurel St., a member who is a former employee of the hospital as well as a neighbor. The project will likely take at least another year. When completed, committee members say, the memorial will take the form of a park on a quarter-acre plot on which the towering fountain will sit, restored to its former glory, surrounded by a landscaped area, benches and informational kiosks that educate visitors about key developments and history of the former hospital, which opened in 1858.*

“We want to really make it possible for people who visit the site to know that, for 140 years, this was a very important place in Northampton’s history,” Duda said. “Something important happened here. A lot of people lived and worked and died here — and they should be remembered.”

A ‘perfect’ location

Duda said when the memorial committee began imagining a memorial for the state hospital, the location was uncertain. The only thing members knew was that MassDevelopment was required to allow a memorial as part of its contract to develop the site. In the early stages, the committee worked with the assumption that it would be located “way in the back, hidden away,” Duda said.

But after changes in the design, she said, the proposed location shifted.

Officials from MassDevelopment told them, “ ‘We have a different location, but we think you’re going to like it,’ ” Duda said. “That fortuitously turned out to be where the fountain was.”

In fact, the original base of the fountain is visible at the site, though obscured by weeds. “It’s kind of really an amazing coincidence,” she said. “It couldn’t possibly be a better location because it’s already there.”

Tom Riddell, a professor emeritus at Smith, has followed the memorial project closely and teaches a class whose students will help create text and images for the park.

“It’s not necessarily an ideal spot. It’s a little small, and it’s a little bit off the beaten path, and the sight lines aren’t as good as they once were,” he said. On the other hand, he noted: “putting the fountain back in its original spot is important and symbolic.”

Duda said the base of the fountain was buried years ago in an effort to protect it from the elements, while other pieces of it were taken to the Department of Public Works for safekeeping.

Duda said while the fountain restoration committee has been working on the project since 2009, the idea to have the fountain serve as a memorial was raised in 2000.

Duda can pinpoint the year because it coincided with the weekend that artist Anna Schuleit staged a dramatic, 28-minute commemoration of former patients which drew about 1,000 people to hear the playing of J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat” in and around the institution’s former main building. According to Duda, Schuleit’s mother arrived from Germany to be at the event, and while walking around the grounds she stopped at the fountain and said, “This should be a memorial of all the tears that were shed here.”

Blumenthal believes the fountain is a perfect vehicle for a memorial because of its pivotal role at the hospital. “It was a real focal point of the place. People said, ‘I’ll meet you at the fountain,’ ” he said. “The fact that they’ve given us the exact location where it was is unbelievable.”

A ‘pocket park’

The design for the park has been created by landscape architect Martha Lyon.

Situated in the quarter-acre, landlocked parcel at the end of Olander Drive, with a towering copper beech as a backdrop, the park will feature the restored fountain (though it won’t spout water as it did in its heyday) at the center of a circular path. Kiosks will contain text and pictures by Riddell’s students.

Riddell has taught a seminar titled “The Evolution and Transformation of the Northampton State Hospital” for about a decade. To him, the subject is a “perfect example of an interdisciplinary effort to understand some local history.” It draws on social history, public policy, law, mental health, psychology and architecture and the art of memorializing.

Riddell taught the seminar from 1998 to 2005, then revived it for the last two years. He said students from recent classes will contribute to informational displays incorporated into the park. “We’re starting to build an inventory of potential information,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lyons stepped forward to volunteer her time designing the park. Her business, Martha Lyon Landscaping and Architecture LLC on Elm Street in Northampton, specializes in historic preservation projects.

“I’ve worked with historical metal sculptures of this type a lot in my practice,” she said. “I thought it would be a gift to the community.”

* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story overstated the size of the memorial plot.


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