Trask: Still Working to Save the Kirkbride
Monday, December 19th 2005
Richard Trask/ Guest Columnist
Recently a group of citizens, myself included, attempted to obtain a preliminary injunction from superior court to stay the demolition of the National Registry District Danvers State Hospital. Our request was denied, though we still have the option to go to trial. The plaintiffs in the case, along with others who donated money to assist with legal costs, have always had as their goal the preservation of the best of the architectural greatness of the state hospital property. This is the same goal that has been emphasized by various special studies and town committees, by Danvers Town Meeting, several governmental agencies and newspaper editorials, beginning as far back as the 1980s.
Over the years, however, this goal has been obfuscated, eviscerated and abdicated following a multi-year Byzantine process overseen by the commonwealth. Most advocates of the careful development of this Massachusetts asset, which would protect the historic and architecturally significant circa-1876 Kirkbride complex, while allowing for new use and including collateral issues of patient inclusion and the protection and access of the hospital cemeteries, have become exhausted.
Advocates have been ground down by the state's neglect of minimal maintenance and the lack of physical protection of this historic asset, by the bait-and-switch tactics by the fist designated developer, convoluted interpretations of commonwealth procedures and local preservation bylaws, and the striving for maximum profit by the current invested developer, Avalon Bay. Salt these factors with monetary incentives dangled before the town of Danvers and preservation interests and who in their right mind wouldn't be tempted to acquiesce to the developer's plan?
Well, several of us have continued the fight believing that we owe the effort to ourselves, to the general citizenry of today and to future generations. Such a massive and wanton destruction of all of the nearly 40 structures that make up the National Register District campus of Danvers State Hospital, as well as the obliteration of two thirds of the high-style architecture of the Kirkbride complex and the decapitating of the original roof structure with all its Gothic Revival towers, turrets and cresting down 30 course of bricks, to be replaced with something supposedly "appropriate," is "Disneyfication" of the original grandeur of this historic building. And it is being done only to maximize profit and not because such preservation of the exterior fabric cannot be accomplished.
Avalon Bay, the commonwealth and the Massachusetts Historical Commission need only to look to a well-conceived and executed Danvers project located only a couple of miles away to see how preserving an exterior, while creating a new interior, can be successfully accomplished. The re-invented Holten-Richmond Middle School on Conant Street preserves a wonderful exterior and some interesting interior features while creating a new, beautiful and serviceable 21st century school interior. But I guess the circa-1879 Kirkbride Building, with its designation as a structure with national significance both in history and architecture and presenting one of the most spectacular vistas in all New England, is not quite as important as a local school built in the 1930s.
To those who might look upon those of us who have continued to cry out for the preservation of more of the State Hospital property as being obstructionists who just want to preserve anything old, I would say the following: We have witnessed plans for what could have been a positive project preserving the best of the past while allowing its use in new and exciting ways turn into a simple concern of maximizing profits; everything else be damned. We have witnessed and been told by insiders of the state's active neglect in maintaining this building for over a decade, have watched strong-arm tactics, hordes of lawyers, dangling incentives, a Massachusetts Historical Commission neglectful of its purpose of existence and seemingly more concerned to be a good lapdog within the state bureaucracy. We have seen many good people ground down and burned out in the attempt to do the right thing. It has been an education I am not happy to have experienced. Yet a few of us believed the objective of the preservation of the best of, or at least some of the State Hospital building, was worthy of our full effort. In the end we want to live with a quiet conscience that we did everything in our power to advocate for preservation. I realize this may sound self-serving, but in truth this has always been our objective. We do not advocate for any personal financial gain. If anything this advocacy has now cost some of us serious money in hiring a lawyer and challenging the developer in court. We have experienced not a few sleepless nights knowing what a terrible loss this architectural destruction will be to history.
I now wish I had been more in the know and were more aggressive with legal counsel at an earlier point when questionable decisions and procedures were being made. This development of a valuable resource of the commonwealth (yours and mine) should be worthy of careful consideration in protecting the historic assets, while allowing for reasonable profit by a designated developer. It now seems that this project was simply a means for the state to get rid of a property, make a little money and allow a developer to create a complex of new, middling dwellings that may at best have a life of a generation before being redeveloped. For this we and future generations will lose an architectural masterpiece, an asset which could have been the outer skin of a unique housing development.
And what were our crazy demands? Unfortunately, developer Avalon Bay never sat down with us to discuss them. When they were first picked by the state several years ago we twice publicly requested that they meet with the preservationists to talk, which they indicated they saw no reason to accommodate. Prior to filing suit in superior court last month the potential plaintiffs, through our lawyer James G. Gilbert, requested a meeting to see if at least discussion, if not an accommodation, could be had. Again they declined. In the whole process of Avalon Bay's connection with the project, they have not conceded preserving one building, not one wing, not even one brick other than the original bait-and-switch position of Archstone, the originally designated developer who bailed out several years ago.
Those most vocal on this subject have been Kathryn Morano, Wayne Eisenhower and John Archer. While we don't always agree with one another on all matters, we all have struggled for the goal of preservation. And we are grateful to our attorney Jim Gilbert who has so well represented our case in court and to the many others who have supported us in many ways. Our original position has been pared down from the retaining of most of the 40 19th and 20th century structures of the State Hospital National Register District and all of the historic Kirkbride complex. For over a year we have striven for the following:
1.) That the exteriors of two additional wings be saved as part of the Kirkbride complex. This preservation of the administration building and the first two wings on each side would at least give a feeling of the original scale and grandeur of the Kirkbride complex, rather than an impression of a building with only its head and no body. This would still allow the developer to demolish all the rear complex and four important 1876 side wings.
2.) That any removal of the roof and upper courses of brick on Kirkbride, including slate tiles, towers, turrets, cresting, etc., be replaced like-with-like, or preferably with refurbished original elements and according to original elevations and photographs, so that any replacement meets the minimum Department of the Interior standards for historic restoration.
3.) That the one-story brick mansard-roofed 1908 stable/garage located behind Kirkbride and in good condition be retained for adaptive purposes by Avalon Bay and that they seriously consider the retention of the 1898 Queen Anne style gray gables.
4.) That Avalon Bay, recognizing conservation and potential reuse of building materials, engage in salvage demolition to retain many of the usable and monetary valuable salvage materials including hundreds of 19th century solid wood doors, iron work and architectural features including turrets, brick and granite, much of which can be used on-site or sold off and some of which can be retained as part of the site's architectural history.
5.) Allow the Hospital Cemetery to have public access and appropriate landscaping and memorial in remembrance to those who died while institutionalized and to the memory of those who lived there and those who served assisting the institutionalized patients.
6.) Set aside an appropriate exhibit space reasonably available to the public which can display in words, photographs and artifacts the story of the Danvers State Hospital and its service to the commonwealth for over 100 years.
These are our so-called "unreasonable" requests. During the last few years, and after meetings with the lieutenant governor, secretary of state's staff, former Historical Commission director, messages to our state legislators, etc., etc., we wonder why what we believe as moderate, conservative and reasonable requests suggested to those in power in state government has elicited only silence. And that is why we ourselves have not been silent.
Most likely the developers will continue to ignore our requests, and at some time in the near future most of Kirkbride will suddenly disappear. And all we have left will be memories in picture books.
Richard Trask, a Danvers resident, is the archivist for the town of Danvers.
This article was written by Richard Trask/ Guest Columnist and published by The Danvers Herald on Monday, December 19th 2005 and NOT owned by nor affiliated with opacity.us, but are recorded here solely for educational use. The photographs featured in the article are randomly selected from the Danvers State Hospital galleries on opacity.us unless noted otherwise; they may not directly relate to the article subject matter except for the site location - any other relation is purely coincidental.