A photographer friend called a few weeks ago, from the grounds of the former Mansfield Training School in Mansfield. "One of the buildings has a hole in the roof with a tree growing through it," he said.
He knew I had written extensively about the state's terrible stewardship of its surplus historic properties, notable among them the former Seaside Regional Center in Waterford and Norwich State Hospital in Norwich and Preston. That these lovely and important buildings have been allowed to deteriorate to the point of collapse is an outrage.
Was Mansfield another case?
I hadn't thought about the training school for years, perhaps because I tend to suppress bad memories. I covered the deinstitutionalization of persons with intellectual disabilities in the late 1970s and 1980s when things were grim at Mansfield and heroic activists such as Peg Dignoti and Bob Perske of the Connecticut Association for Retarded Citizens, now the Arc of Connecticut, were filing suits to shut it down and move the residents to more humane community settings. They finally succeeded in 1993.
So, last Sunday I took a ride out there.
The institution's history is a journey through changing attitudes and treatment philosophies. It opened in Lakeville in 1860 as the Connecticut School for Imbeciles at Lakeville. Apparently few found the name offensive because it was retained until 1915, when it was changed to the Connecticut Training School for the Feebleminded, hardly a political correction. Two years later, it merged with the Connecticut Colony for Epileptics, founded at Mansfield in 1910, and became the Mansfield Training School and Hospital, according to online histories of the institution.
The campus has some 19th century structures but most of its major institutional buildings were built between 1914 and 1930 in a number of styles including Greek Revival and Late Victorian. The core 350-acre campus was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
What is immediately obvious is that much of the training school campus has fared better than the state buildings in Waterford and Norwich-Preston, and for one reason: its proximity to the University of Connecticut. The university has adapted much of the old training school grounds into the UConn Depot Campus, home to a number of graduate programs, administrative offices, the puppetry program and museum, the Center for Clean Energy Engineering and other activities. Some of the school's farmland — it grew its own food — is still farmland, which I like to see.
But although some buildings have been demolished and many have been reused, there are still a half-dozen important historic buildings on the campus that aren't being used and are fast going to seed. A horseshoe-shaped former residential building that I believe is Dimock Hall indeed has a gaping hole in the roof through which greenery can be seen. It looks more like weeds or a bush than a tree, but that is a distinction without much of a difference when it rains. Its courtyard area is being used as a parking place for truck trailers.
Another building, the four-columned, Greek Revival-style Knight Hospital, is so overgrown with vines and weeds that it looks like something out of "Lost Horizons." As in Waterford and Norwich, vandalism and weather are doing their slow-motion demolition.
I don't blame UConn for this. The school has tried over the years to develop more of the training school campus, for such things as housing or a hotel and conference center, but for whatever reasons these uses didn't happen. The school's emphasis for the past two decades has been the main campus in Storrs, said planner Fran Gast of the Office of University Planning, and rightly so. Plus, the university should be in the teaching business, and only tangentially in the building business.
There ought to be an agency that properly preserves state-owned historic buildings and helps market them. New York has a public authority, Empire State Development Corp., that successfully markets vacant mental-health properties and other surplus buildings. Here, we can't even protect them from water damage and vandalism. No, wait. A minimum-security prison, Bergin Correctional Institute, was built on some of the training school land. It closed last year. It is surrounded by a fence with concertina wire. Its buildings look pretty good.
Tom Condon can be reached at email@example.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun