A place with a past: Sykesville buildings once housed thousands of patients

Across from the Sykesville-Freedom District Volunteer Fire Department, tucked behind a row of trees, is a building called the Patterson House.

Built in the early 1910s, it's a brick building with white detailing. Behind the building lies the campus of Springfield Hospital Center.


The mental hospital once spanned 1,300 acres in Sykesville with about 4,000 patients. Now it's much smaller, with about 250 forensic patients, meaning they have been charged with a crime, said former Sykesville mayor Jonathan Herman.

Herman is part of the development team that is working on the Warfield complex, a set of buildings that were once used to house the female patients at Springfield.


The Springfield campus now shares space with the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commission. The hospital is still fully functional, but it has evolved over the years.

The outside of the "F" building at the Warfield Complex in Sykesville, MD. Photo provided
The outside of the "F" building at the Warfield Complex in Sykesville, MD. Photo provided (Jennifer Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Springfield was the second mental hospital in Maryland. In the late 1890s talk began about opening another hospital because Spring Grove Hospital Center, in Baltimore County, was becoming overcrowded, according to documents from the Sykesville Gate House Museum.

George Patterson owned the land that would become Springfield. When he died on Nov. 19, 1869, his son in-law Frank Brown, who had also inherited the adjoining farmland, owned the land, according to the documents.

Brown later became governor of Maryland and sold the land to the state for it to become "the Second Hospital for the Insane in Maryland."


In 1894, Baltimore County Sen. John Hubner, who would later be known as the "Father of Springfield Hospital" introduced legislation that would establish the second mental health institution in Maryland. By 1897, there were 53 patients at Springfield, according to the documents.

By 1915, there were 1,387 patients, with 416 admitted in 1915, and by 1932, there were 2,410 patients.

In the early years of Springfield, the hospital worked like a farm. The idea was that farming and daily activities would be therapy for the patients who came to stay at the hospital, said Jack White, curator at the Sykesville Gate House Museum.

"So when you think of Springfield, it was a huge farm until they started building houses," White said.

Springfield was a self-sufficient, Herman said. The patients worked the land and grew their own food. During a recent tour of the Warfield complex, he pointed out a root cellar that was used for storage.

The outside of the "F" building at the Warfield Complex in Sykesville, MD on Friday, September 23, 2016. The Warfield Complex was a part of Springfield Hospital.
The outside of the "F" building at the Warfield Complex in Sykesville, MD on Friday, September 23, 2016. The Warfield Complex was a part of Springfield Hospital. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The root cellar was constructed sometime around 1936. At the same time, X-ray machines were also being introduced to the hospital, according to the documents.

It's not clear when things shifted from the idea of farming therapy to a stricter hospital setting. As new technology appeared and new treatments were conducted on those with mental disorders, the hospital changed from a working farm to a more mental hospital-like setting, White said.

The change was also spurred by laws that prevented patients from working the land, Herman said.

While the land was still worked by the patients in the late 1930s, there was a clear trend toward overcrowding and unlivable conditions.

Around 1936, the superintendent of the hospital, Dr. Ira Darling, wrote to the hospital's board calling for more occupational therapists. He also reported that half of the living quarters for the staff were "unsatisfactory," according to the documents.

He divided the hospital into three divisions — one that would manage the animals; one that would handle the crops, horses and hens; and one that would handle vegetables, including lettuce, carrots, spinach and others.

In June 1936, to fight the overcrowding at the hospital, a maximum capacity was established at 2,647 patients. By 1938, there were 2,652 patients, with 498 paroled. The number of patients kept growing, hitting 2,780 in 1939.

Overcrowding was a large problem, as was public opinion about the hospital, according to the documents. The author of the documents also alludes to several investigations that found unsatisfactory conditions at the Springfield.

An article in Maryland Historical Magazine about The Baltimore Sun's reporting on Springfield in the late 1940s recorded alarming details about the hospital. One case involved an attendant at Springfield who was as sick as his patients. In another, two drunken attendants went into the women's ward, where they "solicited and performed sex acts with a patient as her roommate slept nearby."

And while The Sun reported brutality against patients and unlivable conditions, including rats and bugs in the facilities, the Maryland Historical Magazine's article reports that there was not a large public outcry.

A room inside cafeteria auditorium building inside the Warfield Complex in Sykesville, MD on Friday, September 23, 2016. The Warfield Complex was a part of Springfield Hospital.
A room inside cafeteria auditorium building inside the Warfield Complex in Sykesville, MD on Friday, September 23, 2016. The Warfield Complex was a part of Springfield Hospital. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

In 1949, The Sun released a series of articles called "Maryland's Shame," which detailed the conditions at Springfield and other hospital around Maryland. When the article landed on people's doorsteps, the public outcry that had been missing from previous reporting of the horrid conditions arose, according to the Maryland Historical Magazine.

The articles described attendants being drunk on duty, stealing from their patients and raping female patients. Accompanying the articles were photos of the patients, with black bars over the eyes to protect their identities, according to the magazine.

There was government action to improve Springfield as a result of the articles and the public reaction, according to the Maryland Historical Magazine.

And while things may have improved, White said Springfield was on a downward slope. The movement to deinstitutionalize mental health sent many patients out of Springfield, and by the 1970s the hospital fell on hard times.

Herman said the laws that had stopped the patients from working at Springfield also helped put the hospital on the downward path.

"I view that as really the beginning of the end of what Springfield was," Herman said.

Springfield still operates as a mental health facility. Many of the patients are forensic — court ordered — with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene testifying before the General Assembly that 90 percent of mental health patients at the state mental facilities are forensic. Springfield, as well as the other mental hospitals across the state, continue to face problems with overcrowding, according to the health department.

The land and buildings that once made up the complex have been divided. Sykesville bought the Warfield complex and the buildings that now make up the Maryland Police and Training Commissions during Herman's tenure as mayor. The town sold the buildings for the Maryland Police and Training Commissions back to the state, he said.

The Morgan's Grove complex, which housed male patients, is currently part of the state-owned portion of the hospital, but the buildings are abandoned, Herman said.

And while the period between the 1940s and the 1980s hit Springfield hard, White said there are still stories of good to come out of the hospital. Henrietta DeWitt, a pioneer in social work, worked at Springfield, striving to make a system to help ease patients in and out of the hospital, White said.


Then there were patients' stories.


"There's a million good stories," White said.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did not respond to two requests to interview Paula Langmead, current CEO of Springfield Hospital Center, for this article.

Springfield and Sykesville

When Brown sold the land to become Springfield Hospital, it was not within the Sykesville town limits. The 1930s document from the Sykesville Gate House Museum describes Springfield as a "little village."

"Adjacent to the south boundary of the Patterson Estate is Sykesville, the strange little town that lies in the bottom of a bowl surrounded by Carroll County hills," according to the documents.

The Sykesville area was largely made up of large and rich farms, White said, and the documents note that its proximity to the B&O railroad made the town easily accessible from Baltimore.

Springfield Hospital and Sykesville were closely connected, White said.

"I think they needed Springfield," he said.

White said that people came to Sykesville to work at the hospital. During the hospital's peak, there were between 5,000 and 10,000 people on its land, between patients and attendants, he said.

White said Sykesville had shops that sold nursing gear, and the area provided housing for the workers.

"So it was really connected a long time ago," he said.

The dining hall at Springfield Hospital is pictured in the 1920s.
The dining hall at Springfield Hospital is pictured in the 1920s. (Jennifer Rynda / Carroll County Times)

Sykesville itself hit hard times in the 1970s and 1980s, but White wasn't sure whether that had to do with the decreasing population at Springfield. He did note that the Main Street shops were empty, and that the Great Depression had affected the town.

"I think probably Springfield kept it alive, but not thriving," White said.

White said he is not sure how many people living in the Sykesville and Eldersburg area know about the hospital. Anyone driving down Route 32 by the fire station can see a sign for Springfield Hospital Center.

Herman and a group of developers are working to turn the abandoned Warfield complex into a new development, which will likely have apartments and a community building.

One of the buildings on the Warfield complex was previously used to put on movies and shows for the patients, as well as the community. Herman said he plans to keep that idea for the auditorium building.

For right now, the auditorium sits boarded up, and inside it's almost untouched from the moment it was closed down, with costumes still on the rack in a dressing room and movie projectors still pointing at what used to be a movie screen.

The majority of the Warfield complex buildings are boarded up, but the campus is open for people to walk around. Herman said the buildings are still standing because they were built by the best architects of the day.

And despite a few holes in the glass and porches that appear to be falling down, the brick buildings that used to house Springfield's patients are still standing.



Recommended on Baltimore Sun