For years, R. Todd Stevens drove by the old Crownsville Hospital Center and wondered about the closed psychiatric facility.
The hospital shut down in 2004, two years before Stevens moved just a couple miles down the road. He was surprised to learn the crumbling brick buildings and white cottages had been full of patients and doctors just a couple years before.
"It looked like it had been closed years ago," Stevens said.
Finally, his curiosity got the best of him, and Stevens decided this spring to explore the hospital's past by making a documentary.
Since then, Stevens has spent his evenings and weekends researching the hospital, conducting interviews, shooting footage and drumming up money to make his vision a reality.
The title of his film is "Crownsville Hospital: From Lunacy to Legacy," and he hopes to have it finished in the spring.
His work has led him to learn about some of the more unsavory aspects of the hospital's history, including that it was segregated for decades and patients were neglected and experimented on in the early years.
"My mission is to inform people. Some of the information is upsetting, but it's the truth," he said.
Crownsville Hospital Center was founded in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, a place to house African-American psychiatric patients separately from white patients in the other state hospitals. The first patients helped build the hospital's first buildings on land that previously was a farm. Some patients weren't even mentally ill, and scores who died at the hospital were buried in anonymous graves.
The hospital eventually was integrated and became a modern mental health facility before it was closed in 2004 because of a declining patient population. Since then, the campus has sat largely vacant.
There are proposals to redevelop the property, including one to turn it into a campus for nonprofit and medical uses.
Stevens said he's been surprised to see the attention paid to Crownsville in recent months, including pressure from the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups for the state to investigate the hospital's past, as well as a recent hearing on the issue held by the state's Legislative Black Caucus. The Caucus of African-American Leaders, an Anne Arundel County group, is seeking a formal apology from the state for how blacks were treated.
Gov. Martin O'Malley ordered state health officials last month to form a working group and enlist an academic researcher to study the hospital's history.
Stevens had hoped his film would be a catalyst for attention on the hospital and its history. But the attention already focused there has proved beneficial, giving him more leads to documents and people who can tell the hospital's story in his film.
Stevens has found there's ample material to work with — too much to fit in his film, which he anticipates will be about an hour long.
"It could be an eight-hour miniseries on PBS," he said.
He hopes to capture the horrors of the hospital's dark years while not sensationalizing the story.
Stevens has done some filming of the hospital's exterior, but the state refused him access inside the buildings. He's been chased away by security.
"I have to have one eye on the lens and one eye on the guards," he said.
Finding interview subjects has been much easier, and he has a list of more than a dozen people he hopes to film this winter, including former hospital workers, patients' relatives and historians.
He's also bought newspaper and state archives photos that show the hospital when it was operating.
His filmmaking effort has gotten a boost from a campaign on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, where he raised $2,725 this summer to help buy equipment, including a drone camera to shoot aerial footage.
By day, Stevens works as a creative services manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, but he is also a photographer and studied film in college. He has lined up people who have offered their talents in narrating, editing and composing the film's score.
Once complete, Stevens plans to show the film locally, as well as enter it in film festivals.
He's not the first to see Crownsville Hospital Center as a fitting backdrop for a film. The 2006 horror movie "Crazy Eights" was filmed at Crownsville and the Netflix drama "House of Cards" shot scenes on the hospital campus this summer.
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