Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, MA: The Haunting Legacy of a Notorious Asylum

Founding and Early Years

Danvers State Hospital, situated in Danvers, Massachusetts, was a well-known psychiatric facility. Architect Nathaniel Jeremiah Bradlee conceived the design based on the Kirkbride Plan.

Construction began in 1874, with the hospital officially opening its doors in 1878. The initial plan intended for the hospital to accommodate 500 patients, with the potential to house an additional 1,000 in the attic space.

The hospital’s inception aimed to provide compassionate residential care and treatment for the mentally ill. As the institution evolved, it introduced a training program for nurses in 1889 and established a pathological research laboratory in 1895. The hospital’s growth continued into the 1920s when it started operating school clinics to help identify mental deficiencies in children.

Architecture and Design

The design of Danvers State Hospital included a pair of central buildings for administrative purposes, accompanied by four wings extending from each side of the Administration Block. The rear connecting building contained the attendants’ kitchen, laundry, chapel, and dormitories.

Male and female patients occupied separate wings, with the outer wards designated for the most hostile patients—the design aimed to create an environment conducive to the healing process.

An intricate network of tunnels connected the various buildings on the hospital grounds. Tunnel systems were standard in many institutions for the developmentally delayed and mentally ill during that time. The purpose was to maintain self-sufficiency during the winter months.

At Danvers, the tunnel network linked the homes for male and female nurses, “Gray Gables,” Bonner Medical Building, machine shops, pump houses, and numerous other buildings.

Treatment Methods and Controversies

Over the years, Danvers State Hospital implemented various treatments for mental illnesses. In the 1890s, hospital superintendent Dr. Charles Page declared mechanical restraint unnecessary and harmful.

However, as the hospital struggled with overcrowding in the 1920s, reports of inhumane shock therapies, lobotomies, drugs, and straitjackets used to maintain control emerged. This sparked widespread controversy and concerns about patient welfare.

Overcrowding and Struggles

The late 1930s and 1940s saw the patient population at Danvers State Hospital swell to over 2,000, leading to severe overcrowding.

Some patients were even held in the basements of the Kirkbride building. The overcrowding and the hospital’s controversial treatment methods contributed to its tarnished reputation.

Personal Accounts and Stories

Many former patients and staff members have shared their experiences at Danvers State Hospital. Some recalled the harsh treatment methods and challenging living conditions, while others recounted the dedication of staff members who tried to provide the best care despite difficult circumstances.

Closure, Demolition, and Redevelopment

Funding reductions in the 1960s contributed significantly to the gradual shutdown of Danvers State Hospital. The closure of wards and facilities began as early as 1969, with most of the original hospital wards closed or abandoned by 1985.

In 1989, the Administration Block within the original Kirkbride building was closed. As a result, the entire campus shut down on June 24, 1992, and patients were transferred to community settings or other institutions.

Danvers State Hospital demolition
Danvers State Hospital demolition Detmafilms at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Demolition and Redevelopment

In December 2005, AvalonBay Communities purchased the property to develop residential apartments. Although the hospital was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, its buildings were torn down in 2006 to accommodate 497 new apartments.

The historic Kirkbride building was also largely destroyed, leaving only the outer brick shell of the administration area and the G and D wards on either side intact.

Much of the wood from the demolition was salvaged and repurposed for flooring and various millwork applications.

The demolition and redevelopment faced opposition from local preservation funds, which sued to halt the process. However, the efforts were unsuccessful, and the demolition proceeded as planned.

In 2014, the DSF Group acquired the property from Avalon Bay Communities for $108.5 million, announcing plans for further renovations and transformations of the site.

Danvers State Hospital has left a lasting impact on popular culture. It set the 2001 horror film “Session 9” and the 1958 film “Home Before Dark.” Laurie Faria Stolarz’s book “Project 17” revolves around six teens breaking into Danvers to investigate.

The hospital also inspired the level “Asylum” in the video game “Painkiller,” which faithfully reproduced the exterior of the central administration section.

Literary historians believe that the hospital inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s infamous Arkham Sanitarium, which was later adapted as the setting for Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe.

The Current State of the Site

The original Danvers State Hospital site retains only the cemeteries, a few blocked tunnels, and the brick shells of the administration, D, and G wings.

The property has undergone significant transformations since the demolition, with new residential buildings and renovations. Though the hospital’s legacy remains controversial, the site continues evolving and adapting to modern needs.

Danvers State Hospital, Kirkbride Complex, circa 1893
Period photograph, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why did they demolish Danvers State Hospital?

Danvers State Hospital was demolished due to its deteriorating condition, budget cuts, and the shift towards community-based mental health care. In 2005, AvalonBay Communities, a residential apartment developer, acquired the property and planned to demolish the existing structures and build new residential units.

2. How many patients did Danvers State Hospital have?

Initially, the hospital was designed to house 500 patients, with attic space for potentially 1,000 more. However, overcrowding was severe by the 1930s and 1940s, with over 2,000 patients housed at the facility.

3. When was Danvers State Hospital torn down?

Most Danvers State Hospital buildings were demolished between January and June 2006.

4. What is the notorious Danvers State Hospital?

The Danvers State Hospital is notorious for its controversial patient treatment history, including inhumane shock therapies, lobotomies, drugs, and restraints. Imposing Gothic architecture and an eerie atmosphere have also contributed to its notoriety and connections to popular culture.

5. What is Danvers, Massachusetts, known for?

Danvers, Massachusetts, is primarily known for its association with the Danvers State Hospital and its role in popular culture. Additionally, the town has a rich history dating back to the colonial period, with connections to the Salem Witch Trials and various historical landmarks.

Comments: 2
  1. Avatar of Carol Davison
    Carol Davison

    I actually worked there, in administration, in 1965 during my summer break after my first year of college. I remember the ‘welcome wagon’ that visited the various wards once a week for each patient to pick out something from it that they wanted. I also remember the wonderful large painting on the wall of one of the wards done by a patient.. I ‘think’ it was J-3.

    1. Avatar of Spencer Walsh
      Spencer Walsh (author)

      I appreciate your sharing of such unique memories from Danvers State Hospital. It’s enlightening to hear about the efforts to bring positivity to the patients’ lives.

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