Boards cover the remaining windows of the looming Victorian Gothic clock tower belonging to one of Worcester’s most elegant and important structures that is now an empty shell of its former self. Most of the old Worcester State Hospital, or the Lunatic Hospital, as it was called upon its construction in 1887, has needlessly been demolished. Once a hub of innovative mental health practices, only three buildings remain as a testament to the treatment that began there.
“We believe that the physical evidence of Worcester’s involvement in mental health history should be preserved,” said Susan Ceccacci, Education Director at Preservation Worcester. “The clock tower is an iconic survivor from that era, and it stands as a physical reminder of our city’s history.”
Nearly 120 years ago, one of Worcester’s most notable features stood in its prime. Situated on Belmont Street, the Worcester State Hospital, designed specifically for mental illness was the first hospital of its kind in the United States. According to the area survey conducted by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, it housed over 2,000 patients.
“It was considered state of the art in its time,” Ceccacci said.
Everything about the hospital, even down to the layout of the wards was designed with the patient in mind. Wings extending from the central area of the building were staggered so that patients were always given a comforting view of the landscape. “It was made to seem less institutional,” Ceccacci said. “That site was picked for the landscape so the patients could get out, walk around, and be in the fresh air.”
The aptly named Plantation Street in the area bordered the hospital’s farmland, used as a treatment for the patients.
“When I first came to Worcester, the area where UMass is now was fields, tended to by the patients,” said Ceccacci. “It was almost a village in itself.” This form of treatment was also unique to Worcester State Hospital. There was also a farm house where some of the patients lived.
“Some people see it as preserving a landmark of abuse,” said Ceccacci, “although it was certainly never intended that way.” Due to the high influx of patients and the general Worcester population in the 1880s, the public formed an opinion that patients were abused. Many cases of admittance into the hospital were suspected to be for convenience.
Preservation Worcester, a group responsible for saving many buildings from demolition, has been working with the Worcester Historical Commission, the Division of Capital Management, and the Department of Mental Health to see if preservation is still feasible. Since so much of the grounds have already been demolished, the hospital’s status in the National Register of Historic Places may be in jeopardy. The group has kept strong for a building they consider one of the cities, “Most Endangered.”
The Massachusetts Historical Commission’s survey concluded that the area was pertinent to Worcester’s history: “Its high architectural quality, well-preserved site and importance as a regional mental hospital make the Worcester State Hospital a property of exceptional historical significance.”
Twenty years ago, fire destroyed much of the building’s inner structure. Some floors are missing, and what remains is in need of restabilization. “A large part of the wings survived,” Ceccacci said, “but they were demolished last year to make way for the new mental hospital.”
In the 1960s, federal funding for Worcester’s modernization came funneling in, and parts of the old building got demolished. It was planned that the new hospital would go in the same spot, due to the lack of preparation for construction and the landscape.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Ceccacci. “The newer hospital was either going to be here in Worcester or in Westborough. It was the same design; they didn’t change it much at all.” She said an act like that was an insult to the rich history to which Worcester laid claim.
Recently, Preservation Worcester was given $200,000 for a feasibility study to determine if the remaining buildings, the clock tower, Hooper Turret, and nurses’ residence were still able to be used.
“Part of the deal when it was torn down was that the state would give buildings or land with the clock tower to make it more appealing,” said Deborah Packard, Executive Director of Preservation Worcester. “Ideally, we’d like to develop all three buildings.”
Many ideas have been mulled over as to what the future will bring these buildings. Massachusetts Senator Harriette L. Chandler, who initially was not as supportive to the restoration of the remnants of the hospital, believes the clock tower should be made into a museum to mental health.
Some have even suggested the building be made into a hotel.
“I don’t think people would want to live around a hospital or UMass,” said Packard with a laugh.
With buildings like the Worcester State Hospital that have had so much damage, questions arise as to the cost of restoration.
“There has been broad support for its preservation, but a lot of it is about money,” Packard said. “It’s often hard to argue for these buildings.”
“Some make the argument that it will cost too much money to restore some buildings,” said Ceccacci. “You might say this building,” she said, speaking of the Worcester State Hospital. “However it’s a different case; it remains an icon – a landmark.”
Tim O’Conner, contractor for Restco, the building restoration company responsible for salvaging the building that was once home to the Royal Worcester Corset Factory, agrees that monetary issues can become the deciding factors in whether a building will see restoration or demolition. The area surrounding the renovated building of the Royal Worcester Apartments remains just as decrepit as the corset factory once was.
“I’ve heard about something maybe being done with those other buildings,” O’Conner said. “Nothing’s going to happen now with the way the economy is.”
Preservation Worcester has received letters of support from governors, commissioners, and representatives for their efforts toward the renovation of the Worcester State Hospital, but they too still understand the barriers they face.
“Politicking does help, but you shouldn’t have to do that,” said Susan Ceccacci.
“Most renovations only happen for the tax credits,” said O’Conner.
“Now we’re just waiting,” Packard said. “Our fall back plan would be leaving it as an architectural monument, which would cost three million dollars in maintenance fees.” With the hospital’s pending status concerning the national registry, Preservation Worcester is still prepared for what may be in store, but with so much red tape and stipulations in play, it’s hard to tell what will happen to the site of the old hospital.
“All across the country mental hospitals are being abandoned or torn down,” Ceccacci said. “We want to see a building being used, not just sitting there.”