The life and death of Old Main

Photograph of the ruined portico at Northampton State HospitalThe life and death of Old Main: Images preserve the legacy of a now-demolished Northampton State Hospital building by Sarah Dunlap

[Originally published in The Daily Hampshire Gazette on: Thursday, December 13, 2007. You can see the photographs described here in our Digital Gallery.]

About 6 years ago, Haydenville photographer Mark Majeski lost sight of his dog, Zoey, while walking on the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital. Following the sound of her barking, Majeski found his way into the long-abandoned main building of the hospital through an off-kilter door – and entered a near-forgotten world.

His Nikon camera conveniently in hand, Majeski, a professional photographer and graphic designer, spent the rest of the day wandering through the defunct mental hospital’s halls and tunnels, photographing the cavernous building inside and out.

Now, nearly six years after Majeski snapped those photographs, Forbes Library in Northampton is showcasing 27 of the color images taken that day, in an exhibit in the library’s Community Room running through Jan. 30. An opening reception held at the library Saturday featured Northampton author and former city councilor Mike Kirby, who spoke about the hospital’s past and future.

Developers demolished Old Main in February, ending a bid to preserve the historic building where Majeski shot his photographs. The hospital, which opened in 1858 under the name Northampton Lunatic Asylum, officially closed 135 years later in 1993. At its highest capacity, it housed over 2,400 patients, but at the time of its closure that number had shrunk to under 100.

The hospital’s then 70 buildings were situated on a 570-acre tract of land, half of which was earmarked for crop and pasture. In recent months, the Boston-based nonprofit company MassDevelopment has begun constructing residential and commercial buildings on the property, in a development called Village Hill at Northampton.

When Majeski entered the building in 2002, he was surprised both by the building’s size and some of its features, such as a theater, complete with a stage and a balcony.

“The old main building – it used to be called Old Main – was about a football field in length and had three floors, a basement and a sub-basement. I was kind of surprised it was such a vast place,” said Majeski in a phone interview Thursday, from his Haydenville home. “There was also a theater that was totally unexpected. I assume patients gave plays there.”

Majeski photographed the theater from multiple angles – among the 27 photographs on display are four pictures of the theater, one shot from the entrance, another focusing on the balcony, and two taken from the balcony itself. Majeski said that walking through the hallways and tunnels of the abandoned hospital was an unnerving task – but curiosity led him through the building, which he described as a “maze of floors, rooms, and tunnels.” The roof and floors, he said, were in a state of severe disrepair.

People had broken into the main building to hold parties, Majeski added, leaving shattered glass and graffiti as evidence.

“The roof was in real bad repair. In fact some of the floors were so rotten that you couldn’t really walk through some of the hallways,” he said. “It was really dangerous. The sub-basement was half full of water, and I couldn’t go in there, because you needed diving gear to get into that part of the building, and there was a lot of broken glass.”

In one photograph, Majeski shows the front of Old Main, an imposing structure with discolored red bricks and shattered windows. In this image, Old Main seems to tower above its neighboring structures, all of which have the same Gothic architectural features.

In February, after Majeski’s exhibit concludes, the Forbes Library will digitize his images and place them in its Special Collection of historic photographs.

Majeski originally took the photographs of the abandoned hospital for his own collection and did not consider the possibility of exhibiting the images. After development began at the hospital site, however, he approached Faith Kaufmann, the head of the library’s arts and music department, to talk about putting them on display.

“They were just a personal collection of pictures, but earlier this year, or last year, they started to knock down those buildings, and I just thought maybe the public would be interested in seeing them,” he said.

Kirby, who spoke at Saturday’s reception, had been a member of the community group “Save Old Main,” which advocated the hospital site’s preservation.

“One picture in particular of Mark’s kind of hit me in the heart, which is the picture of the chapel and the meeting area where the patients used to meet for church services,” Kirby said. “I remember going through there in the 1990s. I really hoped that some sort of museum would be possible there. It’s kind of sad that a historic village should be demolished, but that’s what the city’s decided to do.”

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