Photo © Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
In 1873, the need for another psychiatric hospital to serve the Boston population had risen once again; the asylums constructed in Tewskbury, Worcester, Taunton and Northampton were already quite overcrowded. A site called Hawthorne Hill (also known as Hathorne Hill) in Danvers was chosen for the new hospital; the scenic vistas, fresh air, and acres of farm land to work were part of the therapeutic treatments thought to have cured insanity.
During this time period, elegant asylums were being constructed at an enormous cost to provide the best care for the mentally ill; many of these ornate structures followed a plan devised by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride called the linear plan, or the Kirkbride plan as it was later known. The asylum at Danvers was structured in this Kirkbride framework by architect Nathaniel J. Bradlee. Gothic spires rose from eight wings that radiated from a 130 foot central tower. Construction of the hospital began in 1874, and the 70,000 square foot building was completed four years later at a cost of $1.5 million. The extravagant asylum drew some criticism from the working class residents of Danvers living in its shadow during the first years of operation, wondering why the "insane" were given such grand treatment from the state while they worked hard for little pay.
Other buildings on campus included a boiler house, a treatment group for patients with Tuberculosis, maintenance and farm buildings, and Asylum Station (later named Hathorne Station), which was a stop along the Essex railroad. The large Kirkbride building was only meant to hold 500 patients, but by the 1930s there were over 2,000 residents crammed in every available space. The lack of funding was the root of many problems that were plaguing state-run mental hospitals all over the United States, including staff shortages, low wages, overcrowding, and substandard care. This exquisite hospital building that was becoming a nightmare was left with the only option available - custodial care. Instead of researching progressive treatments and administering therapy, patients were given the most minimal levels of care the strained system could provide, and the result was not pretty. The wing tips which housed the most violent patients (A and J wards) became "back wards" for the hopeless and incurable, and was likened to a human cesspool in investigations that turned into sensational newspaper headlines. DSH held over 2,400 patients during its peak operation, and employed a variety of treatments as medical history progressed, including the lobotomy, electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy, and drug therapy. Reports of using these therapies as a means to control or subdue the patient population were criticized in addition to allegations of abuse. Amidst the horror stories and legal battles, heartwarming stories of caring staff and successful treatments can be found from past employees and residents.
A slow deinstitutionalization process began in the 1960s, releasing patients to community-based group homes and other Massachusetts state hospitals. The Kirkbride building began to close the wards at the wing tips in the mid-1980s and most services were moved to the Bonner Building; the entire building was eventually shuttered in 1989. Danvers State Hospital continued to operate until the entire facility closed in June of 1992. The hospital was used as a filming location for the movie Session 9 (2001); afterward the building was boarded up and 24-hour security was placed on-site. An article about trespassing on the grounds states that over 120 people had been arrested since the year 2000.
In 2007, three-quarters of the Kirkbride building were demolished to make way for a residential community called Avalon Bay Danvers. The central administrative area and the first two sets of wings were gutted and refurbished into condominiums.
Another movie filmed at DSH is Home Before Dark (1958), and features some rare footage of the hospital's interior and exterior during operation.