Asylums Abandoned and Adapted

What is it about abandoned mental hospitals? There is a lure there; not quite sure why. For many years, the abandoned state mental hospital in nearby Danvers, formally and progressively known as the Danvers Lunatic Hospital, the Danvers State Insane Asylum and the Danvers State Mental Hospital (you can trace the evolution of the vocabulary of mental illness by charting the changing names of such institutions, so many of which were built in the later nineteenth century), drew many night-time visitors to its darkened doors after its closure in 1992. Constructed between 1874 and 1878 in the “Domestic” Gothic style and according to the Kirkbride Plan which dominated asylum architecture at the time, you can see why it cut a rather menacing silhouette when lifeless. Even before it was abandoned, Danvers was inspirational (it is said to be the model for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium in “The Thing on the Doorstep” and several other stories) but somehow became even more so in its abandonment: inspiring preservationists, photographers, and movie producers.

Abandoned Asylum Danvers Trask

Abandoned Asylum Danvers 1930s

Abandoned Asylum Danvers 1895

Danvers in its heyday:  photographs from Danvers Town Archivist Richard Trask History of Danvers State Hospital at the Danvers Archival Center and from the Eighteenth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Danvers Lunatic Hospital, 1895.

Below are pictures of the hospital dating from 2000-2001, when preservationists were engaged in an intense battle to save the building, or at least its central administrative section, for adaptive re-use. They were successful in placing Danvers on Preservation Massachusetts’ Most Endangered List that year, but not in saving the structure: both its wings and its central section were demolished by the Avalon Bay Communities, Inc., an apartment development and management company, following its acquisition in 2005. What “remains” was really reconstructed rather than renovated, so my alliterative title is a misnomer, at least as it applies to Danvers State.

Abandoned Danvers2 SSU

Abandoned Danvers SSU

Abandoned Danvers 3 SSU

The Shuttered Hospital:  Preservation Massachusetts Flikr. (The steeple was removed in 1970, apparently for safety’s sake).

The shuttered era of Danvers State has inspired some hauntingly beautiful images, most notably by photographers Roger Farrington and John Gray. Farrington is the historian-photographer, capturing the institution’s interior at the moment of its closing in 1992, while Gray comes along a bit later and expands the geographical context of Danvers and its decline in an extremely compelling way in his beautiful book Abandoned Asylums of New England: A Photographic Journey. I particularly like his image (below) of Worcester State Hospital, another Kirkbride building built and closed at the same time as Danvers, which met much the same fate. Looking through Gray’s book, my question is no longer what is it about abandoned mental hospitals but why do we build monumental buildings that we can’t, or won’t, maintain? Maybe we no longer do.


Abandoned Asylums Danvers Rooftops Gray

Worcester State John Gray

Photographs by Roger Carrington (interior) and John Gray (Danvers turrets at sunset and Worcester State in the dark).

The consensus among preservationists is that Danvers didn’t have to be demolished/reconstructed: there were other options and there are other models of adaptive reuse among the remaining (sadly small number) of Kirkbride buildings. There is a great blog/website which provides a one-stop resource of information and images for these institutions and their fates. The list of demolitions is much longer than the list of saves, and most of these complexes seem to be crumbling, but there are a few rays of hope:  the Traverse City Mental Hospital in northern Michigan (alternatively known as the Northern Michigan Asylum), now redeveloped and reconsecrated as the residential Village at  Grand Traverse Commons, seems to be  the best example of preservation and conversion. Things look good for the Fergus Falls State Mental Hospital in Minnesota as well but, like Danvers, it’s been abandoned for years.



Fergus Falls Hospital 1928

Traverse City in 1990 and The Village at Grand Traverse Commons today, photograph by Gary Howe for the New York Times; Fergus Falls Hospital in 1928, Minnesota Historical Society.

I could go on and on about each and every one of these abandoned buildings, both those that remain (Athens, Ohio, Buffalo!!!) and those that have been lost, but I’m going to go back to Danvers, which has provided a dramatic backdrop and inspiration in both its open and shuttered eras. Two films have been filmed there, the Jean Simmons  film Home before Dark (which I saw long, long ago and have no memory of the Hospital; I’m going to look at it again) and the 2001 horror film Session 9, which I have not seen and have no desire to see.

Session 9 2

session 9 danvers

Poster and Screen shot from Session 9 (2001).

Perhaps the most creative expression inspired by Danvers State Hospital has simultaneously preserved a piece of it. A year ago, I came across an article about Danvers resident John Archer’s “Scrap Mansion” in the New York Times. As a board member of the Danvers Preservation Commission, Archer was a key part of the fight to save Danvers State, but when it came down, he salvaged a turret and installed it in his ever-expanding house.  So pieces of Danvers State Hospital remain intact, both in the reconstructed facade on its original site and a house nearby.

Archer1 Archer3

Danvers State/Avalon


John Archer before his Danvers Wing, and salvaged doors from Danvers State, Trent Bell for the New York Times; Danvers State administrative building/Avalon Danvers, last weekend.

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