‘Going to Waterbury: An Elegy,’ a closure event for the Vermont State Hospital

The Vermont State Hospital in its early days.

Since its founding by the Legislature in 1892, the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury has been a place of healing and care, abuse and warehousing, controversy and tragedy – an emotional, fiscal, political and medical matrix of Vermont’s evolving actions and views toward treating mental illness.

Whatever one’s perspective, the one enduring truth is that tens of thousands of Vermonters were housed and treated by many other Vermonters within the red-brick buildings that comprised the state’s now-closed acute mental care facility during its 120 years.

Tom Stevens, Waterbury’s House representative, says the Vermont State Hospital is a significant part of Vermont history, and after 120 years he didn’t want it to vanish without recognition.

Buildings at the Waterbury State Office complex. Photo by Don Shall.

Waterbury State Office Complex building. Creative Commons Photo by Don Shall via flickr

It won’t. This weekend, on Saturday and Sunday, he’s organized, “Going to Waterbury: An Elegy,” which will try through art, pictures and reminiscence to grapple with, and bring “closure” to, the Vermont State Hospital and its mixed legacy.

“We hope to be able to evoke in ourselves the feelings and emotions you have when you think about the hospital,” says Stevens, admitting that the emotions may run a broad gamut – anger to appreciation, sorrow to employees’ thankfulness for a place to work.

“We’re making no judgments on it. It really is an open-ended art piece,” explains Stevens, who has used his theater background to direct plans for an “art installation” that will have many facets. Besides a public forum and chances to reflect on and speak publicly about the hospital, the event will wrap up with a 7 p.m. ceremony with music at adjacent St. Andrew Church, which provided a chaplain to the hospital and spiritual succor to its patients over its long history.

Most of the events will take in the 4 South Building, which is next to Brooks, which housed the hospital until it was closed in August 2011.

How Stevens came to get wrapped up in the project is tied to the devastation that Tropical Storm Irene brought to the community where he has lived for 16 years.

Irene’s flooding swamped much of the Waterbury state office complex in August 2011, including the Brooks Building, which was the sole structure housing VSH patients at the time. Legislators, Waterbury officials and businesses immediately turned to the arduous task of rebuilding in the hard-hit village and confronting the challenges brought by the loss of some 1,400 state employees who provided a key economic lifeblood.

In spring, state officials and lawmakers settled on a rebuilding plan for Waterbury that would return around 1,000 office workers, erect a new office building and restore parts of the complex and demolish others.

The Brooks building is one of the structures slated for the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a new 24-bed hospital that will break ground this winter 12 miles away in Berlin next door to Central Vermont Medical Center.

Stevens said around that time he realized that an era in Vermont was not only ending but there would be “no internal vestiges of the state hospital any more” when Brooks is torn down. He felt it was important to mark the institution’s closing, but in the intense post-Irene upheaval, neither he nor state officials such as State Curator David Schutz had time to organize anything to mark the event.

That changed, he says, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency in July threw a monkey wrench into the state’s $120 million plans to rebuild the state complex, delaying a decision on providing as much as $80 million in funds to help redo the offices.

With potential demolition of buildings postponed and the chaos of Irene’s aftermath easing, Stevens saw an opening for what he calls an “elegy” to the hospital’s role in the state. He got enthusiastic backing from Schutz, who had already salvaged many historic items from the hospital and taken an interest in recognizing its history, as well as from Floyd Nease, a former lawmaker who now heads the Vermont Association of Mental Health and Addiction Recovery.

When it came time to decide who should organize a public commemoration of the VSH, “they both looked at me and said, ‘You have the passion,’” Stevens says.

He did, and he’s jumped in full bore ever since, aided by Schutz and Michael Stevens of the state’s Department of Buildings and General Services.

Schutz says he’s eager to see what Stevens has organized. “He is a force … He’s pouring a ton of energy and effort into this.”

According to Stevens, he’s drawn a lot of artistic inspiration from a similar event organized in 2003 in Massachusetts when it closed a state facility.

There is a remarkable amount of history in the hospital to consider and elegize. As an “insane asylum” in the early 1900s, the hospital housed well over 1,000 patients and largely fed them from a huge nearby farm worked by patients – sustainability before that even became a catch phrase. The original complex, with its round red-brick buildings and ornate interiors, is architecturally significant.

The dark side, as noted by Schutz and others, is exemplified by basement cells where patients could be shackled and tiny isolation rooms.

In the 1970s, de-institutionalization became a buzzword in treatment and the hospital census declined as patients were moved out into the community in “group homes.” In turn, the vacated space was renovated for use as state offices, starting a tectonic shift in the “negative connotations” that were attached to the phrase “from Waterbury,” Stevens notes.

“It was, generally speaking, from the outside, a very negative phrase,” he says, one that he’s earned was deep in the psyche of those who lived in the town in the 40s, 50s and 60s. “People would joke, ‘Oh you’re from Waterbury, why’d they let you out,’” he explains.

Conversely Schutz, who says he has learned a tremendous amount about the hospital and has a lot more to learn, discovered that the hospital has a surprising depth of connection with its workers.

“Sometimes I’ve encountered employees who are the children or even the grandchildren of employees,” he notes. “In Waterbury there are generations of employees who have always worked at that state hospital.”

Nease and Schutz note that many Vermonters have never seen or visited the place where family members were treated and this is a chance to do that.

Stevens added another reason he decided to organize the undertaking, whicvh is that the extensive history of the state hospital is unknown by newer residents.

“Recent people who’ve moved here know nothing about it,” he observes.

By the time Irene hit in 2011, the facility was antiquated and had only 54 beds. Because of highly publicized care issues and suicides, the hospital had not had certification from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid since 2003, meaning a loss of federal funds and a hit to the state budget. For over a decade state officials bandied about various futile plans to close the facility, a feat finally accomplished by Mother Nature.

Waterbury State Complex supervisor Kevin Rogers points to the waterline in the Vermont State Hospital admissions office.

Waterbury State Complex supervisor Kevin Rogers points to the waterline from Tropical Storm Irene  in the Vermont State Hospital admissions office during a tour in January.

The one constant throughout those 120 years was the red bricks and mortar of the buildings that stand on the complex. Stevens says for some people, the event might be like a wake.

“There are many many people who are very sad that Brooks is going to be torn down,” he says. For others who underwent treatment, there may be a sense of anger. Every emotion is valid and part of the elegy, which is why it was clear the event could not be a “celebration.” .
“It’s intended as more of a meditation and meditation process,” he explains, saying “there are so any audiences” that will take part.

“We want to honor the experiences that happened to different people,” he says.

Schutz agrees, saying the two-day event is “all about not judging.”

The intent is simply to reflect the important role the hospital had, good and bad.

“What it’s about is the human attempt to deal with mental illness,” Schutz says, though he notes that, in fact, in its early history the hospital also housed patients with substance abuse and those who were merely indigent.

All of that is history worth knowing, as is learning, as he has, how deeply many employees cared about their patients and the work they did at the hospital.

“It’s clear to me that there were many people who worked there who were doing the very best they could under the circumstances,” he says. “And sometimes thy succeeded, and sometimes they did not succeed, but that’s been the history of the place for 120 years.”

Event schedule

All members of the public with a connection to the Vermont State Hospital are encouraged to attend these free events, which welcome all perspectives on the VSH. The art installation is on Saturday and Sunday (both days from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), the public forum on Saturday at 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. when people are encouraged to speak out about their connection to VSH (all at 4 South), and the closure ceremony, at St. Andrew Church on Main Street in Waterbury, at 7 p.m. on Sunday. St. Andrew’s is located adjacent to the state hospital. The closure ceremony will feature the music of the ME2/orchestra.

The installation, conceived and directed by Stevens, features the work of Vermont artists Jenn Karson, Neil Dixon, Ned Davis, and Jeffrey E. Salzberg, with technical direction by Jeff Tolbert, and interviews conducted by journalist David Goodman. The installation will also feature photos from Brooks and the Storyboard Project. At the public forum on Saturday from 11 to 5 p.m. people are encouraged to come and speak out about their connection to VSH.

For more information on the events, please contact Tom Stevens at 802-244-4164 or [email protected] Stevens is actively seeking donations to cover the project’s costs; the project has received in-kind contributions from VAMHAR, Small Dog Electronics and the State of Vermont, among others. Tax-deductible contributions can be made via VAMHAR at http://www.vamh.org/ or Going to Waterbury, c/o VAMHAR, 100 State St. Suite 352, Montpelier, VT 05601.

Andrew Nemethy

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