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A Walk Through The Past



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A Walk


The Past


By Kendra Bobowick


Security guard Richard Gagne popped the lock at Canaan House from a hefty ring of keys. Filing in behind him with flashlights switched on were Fairfield Hills Master Plan Review Committee members on a tour of two vacant buildings.

Robert Maurer stood on a landing facing two sets of stairs. “Should we go up or down,” he wondered. Ahead of him, Steven zVon walked up one flight until he entered a dusty and poorly lit hallway. The group meandered through debris, stepped across rooms filled with ceiling paint that had chipped and fallen like leaves on tiled floors, and ducked reluctantly through darkened doorways to see interior rooms.

A series of doors with small rectangular windows at eye-level lined the hall and opened on smaller, blocky rooms. “These were patients’ rooms,” said Public Works Director Fred Hurley, who guided the group. The Fairfield Hills campus had been a state-owned psychiatric hospital built in the late 1930s. The facility operated through the mid 1990s. The review committee has recently convened to reassess reuse plans for the grounds and buildings.

“These were patient rooms and exam rooms?” Mr zVon asked.

Standing in the dank air of Canaan House, Mr Hurley replied, “Anything named ‘house’ was for patient housing.” The halls, such as Stratford Hall, were used for dining or recreation, he said. Passing through a main hallway, one sign for the Planning and Zoning Department dangled over a service window.

For about five years in the late 1990s through 2000, town offices had temporarily relocated to Canaan House after the state hospital closed down in 1995.

Could they get upstairs?

“If I remember where the stairs are,” Mr Hurley said.

“I thought I saw them,” said member Gary Steele, indicating the other side of a central wall and fireplace.

“I am not going up,” said Nancy Roznicki, who would soon change her mind and follow others up a flight. “Oh well,” she said.

Standing amid chipped paint and crumbling debris, the splintering group sought others who had explored on their own. Had Mr zVon found his way upstairs? Someone shouted, “Steve!” and they began looking through doorways for his flashlight.

“I see him,” said Ben Roberts. Reaching for a door opening on a large room, he discovered it was locked.

Pools of light from flashlights jiggled around the floor as the group stepped through an unlocked doorway into another wing. A sign posted on the door stated: “2c patients. During privileged card hours door opens every 30 minutes unless there is an emergency.” As the doors swung shut and the beams of light chased shadows from hallways and smaller rooms, Mr Roberts said, “Scrabble!” Excited, he bent to look at an abandoned Scrabble game. The tableau of wordplay was midletter, with intersecting syllables crossing the board.

Behind Mr Roberts was an adjoining tiled room where Mr Hurley entered. Guessing the space might have been a treatment area, he stepped behind a hospital curtain hanging on a runner that could close for privacy, saying, “There was something over here….”

Down the hall and off another adjoining room was another similar curtain hanging in another, larger tiled room. Dead center sat a cast-iron bathtub, alone in the room except for the emerald green curtain pooled inside of it.

Mixing their awe with more current topics, members asked about economic development, the costs of tearing down a building rather than saving it for reuse, recreation, space on the campus for schools, open space, and leasing the property. The review committee will discuss these and other topics as they conduct their master plan review.

“These are a lot of good questions,” Mr Hurley noted. He has been part of the ongoing work onsite for the past several years. Focusing on one topic, Ms Roznicki noted, “We’re concentrating on economic development here … what about the rest of the town beyond?”

“That is what Planning and Zoning is wrestling with in the Plan of Conservation and Development,” came Mr Hurley’s reply.

Stepping back outdoors at roughly 7:30 pm Monday, August 2, they headed toward Cochran House as dusk chased light from the sky.

“This is the last building that was operational,” Mr Hurley said. Group members meandered through Cochran’s dark hallways, pushing flashlight beams into empty rooms. As members spread out, their conversations echoed and overlapped. Words leapt from the din: “Realtor,” “Elevator,” “Demolition,” “Costs.”

Inside a small kitchen are a box of sugar packets lay on the floor with its contents strewn.

Upstairs were very small patient rooms that appeared large enough only for a single bed. Views through barred windows looked across the peaks and steeples adorning the Newtown Municipal Center and other buildings, beyond which were layered hillsides that appeared to ripple across the horizon. Few other than hospital staff and patients have ever seen that view — similar to the panorama from the High Meadow — with the municipal center’s cupola centered in the countryside.

At the end of the patients’ rooms sat an old wheelchair frame just outside a doorway to what may have been the nurses’ station. Forgotten on a counter, likely by someone passing time on a nightshift, were two paperbacks: Dean Koontz’s Dragon Tears and Paul Levine’s Night Vision.


With a map covering the hood of his car, Mr Hurley bent closer to see where Robert Maurer was pointing. Along with Mr Maurer were nearly all the members of Newtown’s newer Fairfield Hills Master Plan Review Committee, who soon followed Mr Hurley into Canaan and Cochran Houses. Both buildings are marked for demolition. Recent conversation have revealed an interest to convert Cochran into apartments, which is not an approved use per the current master plan.

“Was it common to have tunnels?” Mr Maurer asked. Beneath the Fairfield Hills complex and connecting buildings were a series of service tunnels. “Yes,” said Mr Hurley.

Mr Maurer asked about buildings slated for demolition. “Are they that bad inside?”

As best he could, Mr Hurley spent about 15 minutes answering questions tossed randomly by members eager to learn as much as possible about the location.

Deborah Zukowski asked about access roads, which lead to water tanks on the property. “Was it for planned commercial use?” she asked. “No,” Mr Hurley said. The access roads had recently been repaved as part of a trails system throughout the campus, which planners hoped to make accessible to all, including wheelchairs or bicycles.

“Isn’t there a river running through the place?” Mr Maurer asked.

“There used to be an open stream running through the farms,” Mr Hurley said, but the water had been piped and grounds leveled and filled. Members inquired about traffic exits, vistas, aesthetic elements, water damage, open space, future uses, development, until Mr Roberts suggested, “Why don’t we hold our questions….”

As they approached Canaan House, Mr Steele pointed to the duplexes saying, “That’s a nice enclave.” Tipping his head back to get a full view of the building’s height, he said, “Wow, fantastic.”

On tour that day were Pal Lundquist, Nancy Roznicki, Ben Roberts, Alan Shepherd, Robert Maurer, Michael Mossbarger, Deborah Zukowski, Gary Steele, and Steven zVon.

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