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Marking the passage of time

July 1, 2009
by Patricia H. Bazemore, MD and Stephen M. Soreff, MD
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As Massachusetts builds a new state hospital, a historic clock tower serves as an important connection to the past

In this photo of the 1877 worcester state hospital, the round building is hooper turret which, along with the central administration building and clock tower, survived a 1991 fire
In this photo of the 1877 Worcester State Hospital, the round building is Hooper Turret which, along with the central administration building and clock tower, survived a 1991 fire. Photos by Patricia H. Bazemore, MD.

In 1873, construction of the Worcester Lunatic Hospital began on a 275-acre site along a bluff overlooking Lake Quinsigamond on the eastern outskirts of Worcester, Massachusetts.1 This is a substantial building, measuring 1,100 feet long with multiple wings and setbacks. The central administration building is crowned with a clock tower with a 9-foot in diameter Seth Thomas clock and an 800-pound bell.2 The clock tower serves as an important link to the past as the state constructs the hospital's latest iteration.

The 1877 structure

Worcester State Hospital is the second-oldest public mental health facility in the United States (Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, is the oldest). Its first iteration was a symmetrical, two-winged structure with a simple central administration section on Summer Street in Worcester, which opened in 1833.

As the census climbed over 500 in the 1850s, Superintendent Merrick Bemis realized that more space was needed and began studying European hospitals to gain inspiration. He became convinced that a decentralized cottage hospital would serve patients best by providing family-style accommodations for the majority. His model was finally discarded due to its high per capita cost and concerns for community security.3

Bemis fell out of favor due to his association with the decentralized plan and was replaced in August 1872 by his assistant, Barnard D. Eastman.4 Eastman supported a Kirkbride design, by that time the traditional model for asylums. Kirkbride asylums were large, housing more than 250 patients, and characterized by a central administration building with symmetrical wings to divide the patients by sex. Thus, males might be on the right wing and females on the left, with the sexes mixing to attend chapel and social events in the central building.

With Eastman in place, planning was rapidly completed by late 1872.5 The building was designed by the major Boston architecture firm Weston and Rand, who first drew plans on paper and then copied them onto cloth for use by on-site engineers.6 This new site on Belmont Street offered several important features, including a pastoral view to uplift depressed patients, space for exercise, and a large farm to feed both patients and staff (Both groups worked on the farm). The site had a good water supply and natural drainage for sewage.7 As with typical Kirkbride design, the hospital featured large left and right wings in a staggered arrangement, with males in one wing and females in the other. The central administration building, with neighboring laundry, kitchen, and steam buildings, joined the wings. Moving laterally from the center section, each successive wing was set slightly farther back. This configuration allowed air to circulate from the front, back, and sides of each section and permitted an unobstructed view in four directions.

The legislature originally approved a facility to house 400 patients, but before construction began Eastman received approval to increase the number of beds to 500. By 1890, the census was 811 and increased substantially more during the next 60 years.8

Set immediately behind the clock tower (described in detail below) was Sergeant Hall, which had a large, high-ceiling chapel where male and female patients would attend church services, dances, and musical events. The hall had a large pipe organ, a 9-foot concert grand piano, and an at least 8 x 8-foot painting of St. Peter being let out of chains by an angel, speaking directly to patients who may have been chained or restrained themselves. Unfortunately, Sergeant Hall and its contents were among the sections lost in a 1991 fire, although the clock tower survived. 9 Patients are now treated in the Bryan building, which opened in 1957 and at one time housed up to 600 (Current census is 150).

The 1877 worcester state hospital central administration building and clock tower
The 1877 Worcester State Hospital central administration building and clock tower.

A community symbol

When the hospital was completed in October 1877,5 the clock tower became the focal point of Worcester, which then had 175,000 residents. Four stories high with a 107 x 94-foot footprint,9 the clock tower rises 250 feet above 7-mile long Lake Quinsigamond (the area's largest natural landmark) and 500 feet above sea level; porches on the front overlook the city. Today, the clock tower is clearly visible from Interstate 290.