Realizing my teens like to explore abandoned places
Anyone who watches TV shows about ghostly experiences or ghost hunting knows that when they show up to the ol’ abandoned insane asylum or prison, then things will get pretty interesting. There’s so much trauma embedded in such places that it’s inevitable that a few spirits will linger.
Accordingly, anyone familiar with U.S. social history knows that historical treatment of those with behavioral health issues was too often ill-informed and ineffective, and sometimes abusive. Over a century ago, when people were sometimes locked away and forgotten by their families in asylums, the preferred design of such places was a central entrance and wings spreading out to either side. While the design was well-intended and sometimes grandiose, it was also extremely institutional, prison-like, and eventually a discredited approach.
Along came Medfield State Hospital, one of an early set of behavioral health inpatient facilities that approach everything differently. They looked at patients more as people with challenges than as prisoners. The facility used a community design, with various residential buildings and others such as for treatment, food, and church.
Medfield is a beautifully scenic, affluent, sleepy little town about 30 miles southwest of Boston. Driving around, it wouldn’t seem at first pass to be the setting for an asylum. But, founded in 1892, Medfield State Hospital closed down after more than a century later and was embraced by its community.
There used to be 58 buildings, with about 35 still standing. In the five years since ownership was transferred to the town in 2014, the buildings haven’t been easy to maintain. All are boarded up and locked, and rust continues to take over on the exposed metal. While you can’t get inside the buildings, you can still roam the grounds freely, stand on some of the front steps or porches, and try to stitch together an impression of life here in past decades.
Going again at the beginning of June, the grass was green and freshly mowed, people strolled around, a guy played catch with his dog, and the feel was completely different.
The town is proud of this park, and security guards keep careful watch but are very friendly. If you’re interested in going, it’s probably best to first read about Medfield State Hospital and the broader history of treatment at such places. It would also be good to start on the right side of the buildings and work your way around. This is because near where new patients were processed, there’s a sign with the number of each building and what each building’s purpose was. Take a picture with your phone. Then, as you work your way around, you can use the photo to match the building number up and understand its purpose. It makes for a richer discussion for those you’re touring with.
As my girls noted, it’s too bad there’s not a single building that could be rehabbed and furnished enough to tour and better visualize what life would have been like at such a place. Even informative plaques or signs at each building could be interesting, as would plexiglass in lieu of plywood. But the cost of rehab or even signage for a small town can be a challenge. So, reading up ahead of time and taking that picture of the building map near the admissions building will be the best approach for the foreseeable future. Overall, my kids were curious but not creeped out, since it’s only open during daylight hours. They did chafe about not being able to even see inside, but liked the self-guided stroll at our own pace and with our own conversation. Ultimately, they thought it was an interesting trip, and one definitely worth taking on a beautiful day.
As a post script, there is a burial ground for those patients who died, with over 800 graves. This far surpasses the prisoner's cemetery we visited in Rutland that only had a few dozen. It’s a short drive down the street, but we were pressed for time so will have to save that for another time. That means we can’t comment on it, but it’s definitely a place we were interested in checking out.
Hidden New England
Our region has plenty of interesting attractions off the beaten path. Some are brief visits, others longer. Either way, this is a good source of places that are overlooked but absolutely worth visiting!