More than once Andrea Zimmermann said she was surprised by what she learned recently while researching Fairfield Hills. Author, researcher and Newtown resident, Ms Zimmermann in October submitted to the town a preliminary 39-page report of narrative and photographs documenting the property history and specific buildings at the former state hospital.
“You could always keep talking about Fairfield Hills because it’s fascinating,” she observed.
Ms Zimmermann referred to aspects of the circa 1930s campus — formerly owned by the State of Connecticut, the last of the Fairfield Hills Hospital buildings were closed in 1996 — as “cutting-edge,” “fascinating” or “innovative.” Danbury Hall, the building to the east of Trades Lane when entering the campus through its main entrance off Wasserman Way, was built in the early 30s for male staff, and the eight single-family (staff) residences built in 1953 and 1958 on the corner of Mile Hill South and Wasserman Way offered a glimpse of campus life when it opened in the 1930s. The facility expanded in the decades to follow.
For Ms Zimmermann, the work led to lasting impressions.
“The eight houses are so 1950s! The kitchens really nail the date — a small chrome kitchen fan built into the exterior wall, painted wood cabinets with chrome tubular handles — even the pattern on the kitchen floor tile,” she said.
“Both Danbury Hall and the houses were built for economy of living,” she continued. “It’s interesting to me to think about adults living in these places — especially Danbury Hall, which is akin to a college dorm. Life on campus seemed to demand a communal existence.”
“It’s fascinating, so you could have a family there. There was real life going on on this campus,” she explained. “Another thing I found interesting that people may not remember or know, they were constantly building.” Fairfield Hills “was a work in progress,” she said, adapting and expanding to address “new needs of society.” She said that Fairfield Hills “was a dynamic place in so many regards.”
Ms Zimmerman called Danbury Hall “the most fascinating of the buildings.
“It was part of the original concept for an innovative approach to caring for the mentally ill,” she said. “Creating an open campus structure, no bars on the windows of ward rooms, no physical restraints such as straightjackets, which were commonly used at the time. Patients were encouraged to engage in such ‘therapeutic’ activities as reading, playing board games, helping to grow crops and care for the animals at the farm, and even participate in the two hospital baseball teams, both of which were made up of employees and patients.”
During a second interview about her research, she said, “Fairfield Hills was a model for a completely new approach to caring for mentally ill.”
The hospital was “modeled in an innovative way, like a New England college, and was designed with care of mentally ill in mind and new ideas for treatment such recreation rooms, no bars, more freedoms, communal dining,” she said.
She also noted “the types of people they cared for” included not only those with mental illnesses, but also patients struggling with drug addiction, and “psychiatric military casualties.”
Ms Zimmermann said the “less restrictive environment” that also offered activities such as baseball, caring for animals, and treatments “were very cutting-edge.”
She is fascinated, she said, that Fairfield Hills “was a community within itself.” The facility contained its own sewer and power plant, its telephone exchange, and was self-sufficient.
Almost its own township, Fairfield Hills “never really became a part of the fabric of the rest of Newtown’s community,” she said. There did not seem to be a meshing of the Newtown and hospital community “to any great degree, which was surprising to find out.”
During her research she also discovered another surprise.
“I had always understood that people were vehemently opposed to hospital being built here, but farmers and young people in town were in favor,” she said. Looking to survive in the difficult economic times of the late 1920s, farmers could sell their land and the state was offering fair price, she realized, and “the young people were in favor because they were hoping for jobs.”
During her work, Ms Zimmermann came to another realization: “One of the biggest surprises was to find out Fairfield Hills Hospital was, in many ways, not the success it was anticipated to be.” She said the hospital was “overcrowded from the time it opened until 1970.”
One of the books she referenced in her studies “discusses the problematic lack of communication between the state, the trustees, the doctors, the nurses, and other staff, and how that negatively affected the treatment and care of patients,” she said.
“That was a big surprise,” and the “chronic staff shortages” was problematic to effectively care for patients. She also has a sense that politics came into play. Of Connecticut’s then-three mental institutions, “the other two were running as they had been and Fairfield Hills was like the new favored institution.
“The state favored Fairfield Hills and gave the other two short shrift,” she said. She speculates that there was “poor communication because of a sense of favoritism and politics, so no collaboration or cooperation between the state institutions, which contributed to problems.”
Earlier this year, Director of Economic and Community Development Elizabeth Stocker, per the state’s request, had commissioned the research.
The town had received a letter from the state asking for a historical overview of Danbury Hall and the single-family buildings regarding their former uses, Ms Stocker said.
Ms Stocker first thought of Ms Zimmermann, who until earlier this year was a reference librarian at C.H. Booth Library.
“I reached out to her and she said she would do it,” Ms Stocker said. The information, once formally accepted by the town, “will be part of our records.”
Glad to accept the task, Ms Zimmermann said, “I wanted this to be really detailed for posterity. For me, this was so great to write this report; I love local history and Fairfield Hills is fascinating and the more I read the more I wanted to read … I hope to continue my research.”
A letter from State Department of Economic and Community Development addressed to Ms Stocker indicated that the State Historic Preservation Office requested a report on Danbury Hall and a “representative example of the worker housing” be documented. The state also asked that documentation take place “prior to proceeding with plans to demolish the buildings.” The town anticipates razing these structures, the most visible of which is Danbury Hall.
The letter asked that “a report shall be submitted … [and] should include a concise narrative history of the former Fairfield Hills Hospital and the historic context of large psychiatric institutions in Connecticut.”
In her preliminary document submitted to Ms Stocker in October, Ms Zimmermann states its purpose is “to provide a written and photographic record of Danbury Hall staff residence building and one example of the eight individual staff houses.”
Its pages include a history that states, “Danbury Hall is among the 16 primary structures built in the early 1930s as the first step in creating the 100-acre ‘campus’ of the site that has an interior road circulation. Other buildings were added in the 1940s and 1950s, including the eight staff houses.
“Since acquiring the parcel, the Town of Newtown has demolished five structures on the campus (Bridgewater, Fairfield, Greenwich, Litchfield, and Yale) and adapted three structures, one for a new town hall, one for a municipal emergency operations center, and one for a security office,” the report continues.
Her research details the building arrangement on the former farmland purchased by the state.
“The Fairfield Hills Hospital facility is best described as a self-sufficient town within a town,” Ms Zimmermann wrote. “It not only had residence halls for staff and patients, dining halls with kitchens, and administrative buildings, but had six artesian wells to provide water and buildings to house its own power plant, carpentry/paint/plumbing shop, refrigeration and storage unit, sewer plant, laboratory, dentistry, dairy barn, ‘piggery,’ fire house, garage, root cellar, post office, laundry, houses for doctors and the farmer, and morgue.”
Her property history notes that “On June 7, 2001, the voters at a Town Meeting approved the purchase of the former Fairfield Hills Hospital from the State of Connecticut. The Town of Newtown acquired the former Fairfield Hills Hospital property from the State of Connecticut in 2004.”
Ms Zimmermann’s report also provides architectural details, historic context, and milestones in treatment of the mentally ill. The approved report has been posted on the Town of Newtown’s website.