Once a symbol of hope, later of despair, and now an emblem of decay, the Belchertown State School for the Feeble Minded sits abandoned on a huge campus in the foothills of Western Massachusetts, its intended purpose and the remains of its dozens of deteriorating structures stand as starkly anachronistic as its official name, echoing an age and an orientation long left behind. Now blocked off to vehicular traffic, a walk along the crumbling macadam that was the road network is eerie, with weeds over six feet tall flanking the streets, revealing in random spots fire hydrants, street names, and speed limit signs on an avenue to nowhere, much like the set of some post-apocalyptic film, depopulated and replete with a host of boarded- up buildings in Italianate and Colonial Revival architectural styles. There is an administration building that resembles a city hall, a huge school and gymnasium, a hospital, and dozens of other structures – even a power plant — typical of a small city of that era. In many ways, the school served as a kind of insular city, and more than a few would say, a kind of prison as well.
For seventy years, until its closing in 1992 on the heels of revelations of sometimes horrific conditions endured by generations of mentally and physically disabled residents institutionalized here, the State School served as Belchertown’s largest employer. Terrible things once happened in this place, but lawsuits and public awareness of the abuses here spawned a movement for deinstitutionalization and reforms to mental health care that had national consequences. It is therefore fitting that the State School deserves preservation. It would be a tribute to those who suffered in the past and a celebration of those who flourish today despite their disabilities. It will permit us to look to the past and to the future.
This exercise created a sample historic preservation proposal the abandoned campus of the former Belchertown State School. Click on the link below for the complete proposal:
The PowerPoint Sideshow Appendix is below:
The photos below were shot by me on a single overcast afternoon, wandering alone through the abandoned complex. It is fascinating yet spooky. There was evidence everywhere of squatters, probably the homeless, as well as rumors of a bobcat wandering around, and if you believe in ghosts you would expect this is the kind of place they would haunt. I spotted none of these, but the potentiality followed me and my camera for some hours.