Architecture of Norwich State Hospital

Postcard showing the architecture of Norwich State Hospital, circa 1909
Postcard showing the architecture of Norwich State Hospital, circa 1909

This post is a short excerpt from the manuscript of Secrets of the Asylum.

In 1908, when my great-grandmother Graziella Metthe was brought to Norwich State Hospital, she was confronted with five imposing buildings spread out on a broad, 100-acre plateau overlooking the Thames River. Closest to the road was the Administration Building, a three-and-a-half-story red brick structure in French neo-Gothic style, trimmed with Indiana limestone and terracotta. Set back on either side of the Administration Building were the North and South A ward buildings, which were only two stories high, and meant to house fifty-two patients each. The North and South B wards were set back yet farther on either side of the A wards, and turned at forty-five degree angles. The B wards were three stories high and meant to house one hundred and fifty patients each. Ward buildings to the north of the Administration Building were designated for female patients and those to the south, for male patients.

The Kirkbride Architectural Approach

This symmetrical layout was reminiscent of earlier asylums for the insane designed by Thomas Kirkbride (1809-1883), an eminent nineteenth-century physician and advocate for the mentally ill. However, according to the architectural style known as the “Kirkbride Plan,” a single large building comprised the entire asylum, not separate ones, as at Norwich State Hospital. The administrative activities of the hospital were conducted in the center of a Kirkbride building, and it was usually taller and more ornate than the rest of the building. Patient wards were in the wings attached to either side of the administrative area of the hospital, slightly offset toward the rear, and fanning out behind it. From overhead, a Kirkbride asylum looked like a shallow V. Male and female patients were housed on opposite sides of the building, with well-behaved patients in the wards closest to the administrative center, and the most difficult-to-manage patients in the back wards.

By the twentieth century, however, Kirkbride’s architectural approach to mental health care had fallen out of favor. One of the main reasons was that his design was predicated on the idea that the superintendent of the hospital, who lived on-site with his family, would have no more than 250 patients under his care. In addition to running the asylum, the superintendent and his wife were expected to associate with the patients on a daily basis as if they were extended family. The mentally ill were to be treated as rational individuals who could be convinced to change their behavior by experiencing a peaceful environment — a grandiose building and carefully manicured grounds — and through interactions with people of good character who staffed the institution. Social activities such as concerts and dances also encouraged acceptable behavior. This therapeutic approach was known as “moral treatment.” Although sometimes successful in guiding mentally ill people away from their delusions and back into their communities, moral treatment didn’t work for all. Furthermore, it became unsustainable once the number of poor insane in state hospitals exceeded the ability of the Superintendent to give the individual attention that characterized it.

Norwich State Hospital for the Insane

In 1904, the Connecticut State Hospital for the Insane in Middletown housed 2,781 patients. Norwich State Hospital for the Insane was established by a legislative act intended to alleviate the overcrowding at the hospital in Middletown, and to address the growing number of mentally ill people in the state. It opened in October of that year with only two ward buildings (North and South A) and a house in which the Superintendent and his family lived. Immediately after opening, forty patients were transferred from Middletown to Norwich. By the end of the first year of its existence, there were 120 patients in the hospital, filling it to capacity. Two more ward buildings (North and South B) were built in 1907. The Administration Building was completed in 1908, the year that Graziella was committed to the hospital.

Sources Consulted:

Connecticut. Norwich Hospital for the Insane. Report of the Norwich Hospital for the Insane to the Governor for the two years ended … [Norwich, Conn.] : The Hospital, 1907-1942. State of Connecticut Public Document no. 51.

Grob, Gerald N. The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Grob, Gerald N. Mental Illness and American Society, 1875-1940. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Hurd, Henry Mills. The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1916-17. 4 volumes.

Yanni, Carla. The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

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