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A Brief History Of The State's Presence At Fairfield Hills



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A Brief History Of The State’s Presence At Fairfield Hills

By Steve Bigham

Much has been written about Fairfield Hills as we know it today, but very little is known about how Newtown became home to one of the state’s largest mental health hospitals. Next week, Newtown will decide whether or not it wants to purchase the 185-acre core campus of the 800-acre parcel. The following brief history of Fairfield Hills Hospital offers a little perspective on the property.

During the 1920s, the State of Connecticut began purchasing large farms in Newtown, which at the time was a small rural community with fewer than 3,000 permanent residents. The state, at the request of Governor Trumbull, was hoping to expand its mental health facilities due to overcrowded conditions and had designs on Newtown.

State officials, inlcuding Dr Roy L. Leak, the superintendent of the Connecticut State Hospital in Middletown, sought out Newtown resident Dr Waldo Desmond, seeking to capitalize the physician’s knowledge of the local community as well as his understanding of the needs of the mentally ill. His support would be critical in getting Newtown residents to agree to the construction of the hospital.

As more and more farms were purchased, the citizenry of Newtown became “unofficially” alerted that a state hospital for the insane might be on its way. Local leaders opposed to the “location of the hospital in the midst” held many informal meetings in which overt resistance to the idea was expressed. Others supported the idea, especially farmers who were eager to sell their land in light of the failing economy. This would be the first time that the state actually had to buy land for such a facility. Others supported the plan because it meant the possibility of new jobs.

On December 15, 1928, the town held a special meeting at Hawley School to discuss the issue. Dr Desmond was on hand and described the scene, pointing out that town fathers and business leaders adamantly opposed the idea. Some said property values would drop by as much as 50 percent if the hospital were to come in.

“One prominent woman stated that Newtown would become a ‘Ghost Town’ and across the valley would come the moans and screams of patients in padded cells!” Mr Desmond noted.

Many, including Mary Hawley, were concerned that the presence of an “insane asylum” would give proud Newtown a black eye and the town would be known as the place where the “crazy house” was.

At this point, Dr Desmond rose to his feet and addressed the audience, pointing out that mental illness is a very common thing and that most people experience some form of it during their lifetime.

As for the town getting a bad name, Dr Desmond asked a mother whose daughter was attending Vassar College what Poughkeepsie was known for.

“Vassar College,” she replied.

“That was right,” Dr Desmond said. “But it was also home to one of the largest mental health hospitals in New York State.”

Dr Desmond’s speech helped sway public opinion and the hospital proposal was approved, although he was referred to as a “carpetbagger” by many and “through in Newtown.”

None of that proved true as the doctor went on to have a long career in town. Many of his predictions about the state hospital were also true, although many Little Leaguers to this day can attest to the moaning and screaming coming from inside the walls (one of the baseball diamonds is located near Cochran House).

In the spring of 1928, the governor assigned a Hartford architect, Walter P. Crabtree, Jr, to work with Dr Leak on sketches and plans for a new hospital.

On June 18, 1929, an act providing for the establishment of the Fairfield State Hospital was passed and construction of buildings on the 800-acre site began soon thereafter. In 1933, the hospital received its first patients, 32 men who were transferred from Connecticut State Hospital. In 1940, new buildings Kent House and Canaan House were dedicated. These buildings relieved overcrowding at Shelton and Greenwich Houses. In 1941, electric shock therapy was started and by 1953, about 275 patients were receiving it three times a week. The procedure was used mainly on depressed patients. That same year a patient was found beaten to death and problems with employee drinking were discovered.

The hospital continued to grow as the years passed, but it is remembered for having a “stormy history” as it struggled to overcome rifts between employees and the administration, patient escapes, further mistreatment of patients, and more mysterious deaths. Fairfield Hills was said to have become isolated from other facilities around the state, a fact that may have been perpetuated by a mission statement expressed by its board of trustees: “The care and cure of those unfortunate people whose minds have become deranged with strange fancies who have lost control over their thoughts and emotions.”

Much of the 800 acres was used for farming and the institution was all but self-sufficient and had few dealings with the community around it.

The continued increase in the number of patients prompted the construction of Cochran House in 1956. Staff workers in the other buildings who envied its modern facilities commonly referred it to as “Snob Hill.”

In 1958, Plymouth Hall, an occupational and recreational therapy building, was opened. The building had a patients’ library of 10,000 books, a canteen, gymnasium, auditorium, kitchen, and other specially equipped rooms for ceramics, sewing, woodwork, art, photography, and music.

In December of 1995 the state closed Fairfield Hills as a psychiatric institution under its policy of patient “de-institutionalization.”

(The historical information for this story was obtained from the book The Mentally Ill in Connecticut: Changing Patterns of Care and the Evolution of Psychiatric Nursing 1636-1972, which is available in the Booth Library.)

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