Perched on a wooded bluff in rural southeastern Carroll County, the old Henryton State Hospital bears silent witness to the ravages of decades of neglect and vandalism. First opened in 1923, the 18-building complex that once housed the sick and handicapped now appears beyond hope of recovery itself.
Windows gape. Trees reach to the sky through roofs that have caved in or burned. Graffiti and vines cover stucco and brick walls. Broken glass and beer cans litter the ground, along with debris from the crumbling structures.
"Things fall apart," reads one of the spray-painted tags, many of them profane, that festoon the walls.
Years after Maryland and most states largely abandoned institutional psychiatric care in favor of community-oriented treatment, some former hospitals remain vacant as officials puzzle over what to do with them.
In Anne Arundel County, a "strategic plan" is being prepared to decide the fate of the 530-acre campus of the old Crownsville Hospital Center, the state's first mental hospital for African-Americans, which operated from 1913 until it closed in 2004. In Baltimore County, talks drag on over selling Stevenson University a chunk of the Rosewood Center campus in Owings Mills, where the developmentally disabled were housed from 1889 until it was shuttered in 2009. A police recruit was wounded in a shooting earlier this year during an unauthorized training exercise at Rosewood.
But the Henryton complex near Marriottsville, closed since 1985, has deteriorated over the years from white elephant to potentially dangerous nuisance. Worried that someone is going to get hurt, local officials have pressed the state to demolish it, and now the end may be near, with a state official vowing to try to start work in May.
There have been more than 70 fires at Henryton over the past decade, according to fire officials, the most recent on March 17 when a wooden cottage burned down. Firefighters from Sykesville were joined in responding to the blaze by others from Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties.
"We're concerned about anyone possibly being injured on the property, whether it's an intruder or firefighter or EMS personnel," said William E. Barnard, the state fire marshal.
Though the unmarked entrance lane is gated and guarded at times, it's easy to walk in unseen along railroad tracks that parallel the South Branch of the Patapsco River. People from near and far are drawn to the remote 46-acre tract. Some come to check out a forgotten relic, but many are attracted by local and online lore that the place is haunted.
One group of young people, who came to Henryton last week during spring break from high school, said despite the ghost stories, people are drawn to see the artwork others have left behind.
Others apparently come to carouse, to pillage anything of value, or to leave their mark, either with spray paint or matches.
"It is a very beautiful piece of property," said Del. Susan W. Krebs, a Carroll County Republican. "You walk back there off Henryton Road and say, 'Wow! Look what it used to be.'"
But the awe quickly turns to dismay, she said. "Every square inch has been desecrated."
Henryton was built as a sanatorium for African-Americans diagnosed with tuberculosis at a time when health care and many other public facilities were segregated. By the 1950s, nearly 500 adults and children plus staff were housed in the 35-building complex, according to information on file at the Maryland Historical Trust. It was converted in 1962 to a residential facility for the developmentally disabled, and closed nearly three decades ago.
Frank W. Kirkland, developmental disabilities director at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said places like Henryton and Rosewood emptied out as health care for what used to be called the "feeble-minded" evolved from institutionalizing them, ostensibly for their own protection, to providing community-based services that would allow them to continue living with their families or in group homes.
"In the past 20-25 years institutional populations have decreased by probably more than two-thirds," Kirkland said. In Maryland, he noted, there are now fewer than 150 beds for housing the developmentally disabled.
The state has not moved as purposefully to recycle or dispose of its old institutions. One that has successfully transitioned is Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville. Opened in 1896, it housed more than 3,000 patients in overcrowded conditions in the late 1940s. The hospital down-sized in the 1980s, and portions of the complex have been converted to a state police training academy and other uses.
Since Henryton closed, there have been several attempts to sell it off for development or lease it for use as a drug treatment center. One developer envisioned turning it into an equestrian resort, taking advantage of horseback riding trails in the adjoining McKeldin Area of Patapsco Valley State Park. But the site lacks public water and sewer, Krebs noted, and the buildings contain asbestos and lead paint, hazards that often prove costly to remediate.
"Before the windows were ripped out, it was gorgeous," said Amy McGovern, an amateur photographer from Eldersburg who said she's visited the place dozens of times to capture its haunting appearance.
"There's 15 to 20 kids there every Saturday," she said. A couple of years ago, it was a popular party spot, but vandalism seems to have picked up lately. While taking pictures, she's come upon and helped snuff out a few fledgling fires. "It's sad what they have done," she said.
There haven't been any serious injuries so far at Henryton, according to Dennis Beard, spokesman for the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department, a mostly volunteer company that's nearest the complex. But every time firefighters roll out they take a risk, he said.
"We don't go into any buildings," he said. "You sort of stand around and in a way watch it burn ... but you feel you've got to put water on it."
But the company can't afford to ignore fires there, Beard said.
"All you would need to do is find a homeless person," he said, or have something fall on somebody.
Krebs has been pressing the state to demolish the buildings as soon as possible.
"Some of the buildings were worth renovating." But now, she added, "I don't think even a brick can be saved anymore."
State officials had considered using prison inmates to "deconstruct" some structures so their materials could be recycled. Last year, $3.5 million was set aside in the budget, with $3 million added this year. Once cleared of all structures, the land would be absorbed into Patapsco state park.
Demolition wasn't due to start until early next year, though, as officials had said they needed several months to complete a plan for the removal of the structures.
But after the March 17 fire, Bart L. Thomas, assistant secretary for facilities planning at the Department of General Services, said he got orders from the top to expedite the process. Plans to deconstruct some buildings have been shelved, he said, and the structures will get knocked down and hauled away as quickly as possible.
Thomas said officials recognize the hazard the complex presents. While showing a reporter and photographer around the complex last week, five high school students showed up and began roaming through the buildings, poking their heads out of upper windows to be photographed.
One of the students said her father had brought her out there before.
"See what we're up against?" Thomas said. "One of them is going to get hurt. Then we'll be in big trouble."
Maryland's other shuttered institutions
Crownsville Hospital Center: Established in 1910 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, closed in 2004. About 500 mostly wooded acres transferred to Anne Arundel County in 2009 and currently used as a deer-hunting preserve; another 400 acres still held by state. "We're working through a strategic plan to determine the disposition," said Michael A. Gaines Sr., assistant secretary for real estate of the Department of General Services.
Rosewood Center: Established in 1888 as an "asylum and training school for the feeble-minded," renamed Rosewood Training School in 1912, once occupied nearly 700 acres and housed more than 3,000 individuals. Downsized over the decades and closed in 2009. Stevenson University has been negotiating to acquire 178 acres remaining to expand its campus. Questions have arisen about the costs of remediating hazardous materials on the property. Gaines declined to discuss the terms of that transaction or its status, other than to say officials are "still working through many of the details."