HABEAS CORPUS
A site-specific Sound Installation by Anna Schuleit
Northampton State Hospital, 2000

 

 

     At the end of an era of institutional care for the mentally ill stands an old, vacant hospital from the 19th century. Placed on a beautiful hilltop near downtown Northampton, MA, it was one of the first state hospitals to be built in this country, and is one of the oldest to survive into our present day.

 

     Northampton State Hospital was conceived in the spirit of 19th century mental health reform efforts. Built for no more than 250 patients as a single, centralized Kirkbride-structure in 1856, its years of continuous operation spanned more than 14 decades, and its architecture underwent frequent additions. Often overcrowded and understaffed, the institution never fully became the healing environment that it was originally built to be. By the mid-1950s the patient population had risen to over 2,500, and the old-fashioned architecture was quickly decaying.

 

     In the Annual Report of 1965 the superintendent of the institution writes: We have buildings that have served for over 100 years, and we cannot expect them to be useful for another hundred years. He was right. The buildings would not serve past another thirty years. Following a class-action lawsuit and ensuing consent decree in the 1970s, efforts were begun to shorten the hospitalization of state hospital patients, and to provide alternatives to institutionalization in less restrictive community settings.

 

     The gradual closing of Northampton State Hospital was not complete until the last eleven patients left in 1993. The vast campus with its historical buildings has been in disuse since then. In 1999 a developer was chosen for the property, and a drastic conversion of the hospital hilltop into a mixed-use residential area now lies ahead.

 

     Inspired by the enlightened intentions of the founders of this institution, by the controversies which accompanied its operational years as well as its closing, and by the upcoming drastic changes through redevelopment and demolition, we conceived a special set of events that took place in November 2000 to reflect on the former institution, its history, and its people. The list of events included an all-day, academic symposium and a forum with former patients at Smith College, as well as two exhibitions in downtown Northampton. Saturday afternoon was marked by artist Anna Schuleit's "Habeas Corpus" sound installation at the old main building, using J. S. Bach's Magnificat to animate the interior spaces of the historic structure in a single performance.
All events were free and open to the public.

 

      By gathering a large and diverse audience our communal efforts at memorializing this state hospital were able to gain in scope, meaning, and perspective. We hope that you will now be part of the remembrance by browsing through this website, which was created to document the memorialization events for Northampton State Hospital, and to preserve them for future consideration and discussion.

 

     Feel free to contact us with questions, or to join our mailing list for future events. To learn all about Northampton State Hospital, visit this page.

 

     Many thanks to all those who supported the events, who volunteered their time, and who donated their advice and insight to the long planning process. Click here for a list of credits.