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Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Store House

One of my first trips to Northampton after the snow melted I parked at the Community Gardens and walked the paths that led to the back of the hospital. The first building on the outermost edge of the campus was the old store house where food and supplies were delivered. Taken in color, this shot demonstrates the rich red of the brick used to build some of the oldest parts of the hospital. Only the first floor was boarded up with the typical Massachusetts red plywood, the upper windows still with their original glass with bars over each pane.

Old Main

I originally took this shot in color but always felt that the character of Northampton's Old Main shone through better in black and white. I also considered editing out the solar flare above the roof line but somehow it just felt right to leave it in. Northampton began my obsession with exploration and this hospital shows a true timeline of how my photography has changed drastically over the last two years. While Old Main is no longer there, I will always remember my first trip to the Hospital on the Hill overlooking Smith College where I did my graduate work and where Sylvia Plath once sat, writing her suicidal missives that would eventually land her in Northampton's richer, classier older sister, McLean in Belmont.

I can remember the smell of the nurse's ward, the cold, damp feel of the tunnels we snaked through to get to the Kirkbride. I can still see the massive collapse in the basement of all four upper floors of Old Main. NoHo is the spark that lit the fire of exploration for me, both in my photography and in my writing. She has been sorely missed.

One Final Look

New Year's of 2008 saw my final set of Northampton State Hospital's Kirkbride. Old Main had already been taken down in spite of best efforts to prevent the destruction of a historic landmark. Abatement had begun on the rest of the Kirkbride, leaving the wards with open, gaping, windowless eyes out onto a foggy landscape that we knew would soon be barren. It was difficult to see her like that, ready for the wrecking ball, already with her center missing as if her soul had been removed. A few weeks later I stood outside the chainlink fence and watched her ripped apart by the jaws of giant machines and Northampton State Hospital finally fell.

Green Room Redux

The door to Building 17 was literally open for a matter of hours. It was the last building on the campus of Northampton State Hospital that I had yet to see the inside of. The building was largely unremarkable, save for this particular room with its beautiful archways and banks of windows on two walls. The lighting that day was low because of rain and fog, a typical setting on the top of Hospital Hill, but in Photoshop that lighting led to this finished photo, looking like a room that had contracted a bad case of toxic mold. Similar to how the patients who lived behind these walls were once viewed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


The day before I committed this act of artistic expression I received a brochure from the Academy of Art University with this quote- "If it disturbs you, it's art".

This gave me an idea...why not continue with my social commentary at Belchertown State School- almost a way to reach out and tell the developers and construction workers how I feel about them keeping me out and keeping me from continuing to create the art of my choice through these buildings.


When Belchertown State School opened, many parents of disabled children sent them there thinking it was going to be their savior. They believed that their children would be well taken care of, better than they could be at home, and educated to the best of their ability. Little did these parents know that what awaited their children was sadness, misery, and in most cases, pain.

On the steps to the theater, the lyrics to Jeff Buckley’s song “Hallelujah”. These parents believed that BSS was their Hallelujah but, much like the song, it was a cold and broken one.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Clock Face at 9:11

For a time after 9/11 rocked the nation, the clock face of the North Central Correctional Institute read 9:11. Only a recent windstorm knocked the minute hand to half past.

Lt. Ken Sena, who has become the prison's ad hoc historian has given me a tour of the facility twice while I was in the process of writing my book. The prison was originally established in 1902 as a farm colony for the insane. It remained as such until the late 1970's when the Department of Corrections purchased the land and redeveloped the asylum as a prison. As Lt. Sena points out, very little has changed in the buildings other than a fresh coat of paint and new window glass- a well preserved piece of asylum history.

Good Luck in Symbolism

For some reason Swastikas seem to be one of the most popular items of graffiti in abandoned buildings. However, knowing the history of state schools and Eugenics, I find it ironic that vandals would choose the symbol of Nazi Germany to tag a place like Belchertown. Eugenics was a scientific study of the heredity of particular traits such as feeble mindedness or idiocy. Scientists across the nation studied the theory that idiots begat idiots, continuing to increase the populations of state facilities. They then suggested that these individuals, those who tested with low IQs, be sterilized so as not to continue to breed more idiots. Eventually it was these ideas that fueled Hitler's campaign to rid Germany of those he felt were unfit in order to create his master race.

Turn to Face the Wall

In an effort to begin abatement (the process a developer goes through before tearing down or restoring an abandoned building) most of the land at Belchertown State School has been cleared. The trees and bushes that once hid the quiet corners of the buildings are now gone, leaving walls exposed and giving the entire campus a feeling of nakedness, both physically and emotionally.

This chair, rusted and peeling sits on the stairs to the medical building, G Building, where Robert Simpson Ricci lived while a patient at BSS. His father, Ben Ricci, brought about the class action lawsuit that would eventually result in the state issue red plywood slabs covering the doors and windows of the remaining buildings.

This Way to the Balcony Sir...

I have decided to start this photo blog off with what I believe to be one of the final sets to come from Belchertown State School. The state school for the feeble minded opened in 1922 to take in clients from the Fernald School in Waltham and Wrentham State School. Almost from the beginning BSS was a hell hole with beds piled wall to wall in the wards, open sewage spilling into buildings, clients wasting away in beds they were never allowed to leave. The school was finally closed down in the late 1970's, the result of a class action lawsuit enacted by parents, friends, and representatives of the patients and aside from a few small additions, the campus has been abandoned for more than 20 years.

This photo was taken inside the theater which was the main building on the campus. Clients came to the theater on Sundays to have non-denominational church services, attend dances, and view movies such as "The Three Little Pigs" found in the deserted projection booth two years ago. The stairs to the balcony are coated with plaster dust and debris but still lead to a fairly sturdy U-shaped collection of seats that look down on the main floor that has been all but destroyed by the elements- the roof is so far gone that it no longer protects the building from the damage caused by the harsh New England weather.