Urban Exploration: Danvers State Insane Asylum

Whether you call Danvers a sanitarium, sanatorium, insane asylum or mental health facility one thing is blisteringly clear; it’s now a shell of its former self. Urban explorers, ghost hunters, historians and those with morbid curiosities have long known that Danvers was one of the places to visit. There are no nurses in white dresses or orderlies to greet you at the door, no doctors making rounds or carts being pushed around with meals on them.

Danvers was built in the late 1800’s on acres of rolling greens; it was the hope of all involved that the new facility would help those with mental problems. This was long before psychotropic medications were administered to help those in need. At the helm of this was Dr. Thomas Kirkbride. His ideas and processes of helping to treat the mentally unbalanced were simple; fresh air, pleasant scenery and progressive therapies such as art and creative writing. It goes without saying that a majority of the mental facilities built after Danvers were modeled after his design and known as the Kirkbride Plan.

If you look at the maps of the original design concept you see the layout is simply ingenious. Male and female facilities are separate from each other; Kirkbride never believed in sterilizing patients so he chose to limit their amount of interaction but not sever the ties completely. With dormitories for both male and female staff members, three chapels and new building being erected on a regular basis; the early years of Danvers was impressive to say the least. There was also a dairy, slaughterhouse, metal working facility and a large observatory that was redesigned in the late 1960’s.

But that is the past. Today, there is nothing left of Danvers.

State budget cuts, advances in mental health and pressure to convert the property into commercial and residential spaces were the death knell to the Danvers that we once embraced. The tunnels that we roamed through are slowly being filled in, the buildings that housed thousands have been demolished and most recently a series of unexplained fires have hampered developers efforts to turn ‘the castle on the hill’ into something more modern and financially viable. It’s name, AvalonBay.

I was one of thousands of people that ignored the various trespassing signs posted on the property; something compelled me to see the ruins of the once immaculate and much revered asylum. Stepping inside it for the first time, my only fear was that time would play against me. Not present time, but the sands that had already passed through the hourglass for Danvers. 2006 saw the falling of many buildings so my timing was perfect; I was still able to see some of the magnificent structures, amble through the miles of underground tunnels and stand on top of the Kirkbride Building. My fellow explorers were seasoned veterans of Danvers and took great pride in showing off all the amazing places they had discovered.

Danvers did receive a slight reprieve when film crews arrived to begin production on the film “Session 9” starring David Caruso, Josh Lucas, Stephen Gevedon and Peter Mullan. It was seeing this film that added to my deep desire to see Danvers before it was too late. The film revolves around an asbestos recovery and removal team trying to gut one of the main buildings; little do they know, something dark and malevolent is lurking inside its hallowed halls. I wasn’t the only person to watch this film and subsequently visit Danvers; sadly and as previously stated, Danvers is no more.

Efforts were made to try and save the buildings and grounds from demolition but they were futile. What was once a glorious and grandiose facility was run into the ground so in a way, I am glad that I got to see it before it was in a complete state of ruins. The recent fires and mishaps on the property have gone unexplained by those overseeing the construction and renovations; some say they are accidents while others say it’s the voices of the past shrieking out warnings. Ghosts? Perhaps. Dwelling spirits? Maybe.

Being an urban explorer isn’t about breaking the law or trespassing. It’s about trying to visually capture things from the past before it’s too late. I do feel bad for those who weren’t able to see Danvers; even in its aging state of grace, as it was something that made my jaw drop and my heart skip more than a few beats. Time is running out for places like this; sanitariums, asylums, schools, institutions and sanatoriums are no longer profitable. In most cases, the property on which they rest is worth more than what sits upon them.

For me, Danvers was a source of information. Being able to walk through the halls, see countless boxes of medical records left behind and see some of the artwork that still graced the walls made the trip well worth the effort. To me, it is a sad reflection on society to ‘tear down the old to make way for the new’. The building could have easily been renovated to serve the community; instead we’ll have another series of generic buildings and mini malls.

But there remains one question that no one wants to answer. What ever became of the cemetery that became the final resting place of those who died at Danvers? When the hospital was used briefly for tuberculosis care and treatment there was said to have been hundreds of deaths from it. The flat stones that we saw in the ground bore no names or dates, just a simple three digit number ranging from the low 300’s to the high 600’s. Were the bodies removed and the markers left untouched? That doesn’t seem possible if you think about it.

Danvers is just one of hundreds of places that most people overlook. It is a source of information, history and at times controversy. Thousands of patients entered the facility with only a fraction of them leaving in a better state of mind then when they arrived. When they officially closed their doors there were only a handful of patients remaining; people that had no other place to go and were eventually turfed out into the cold. In a way, that is exactly what happened to Danvers State Hospital. When all the life was sucked out of it and it was no longer of use, it was chopped up into bits and held up at auction for the highest bidder.

To those not into exploring these types of places, all this seems a bit foolish. Breaking the law to spend a few hours wandering around abandoned buildings, taking pictures or rolling film. To us, it is preserving a piece of history. Danvers State Insane Asylum has had many names over the years and I, for one, am thankful that I was able to see it before its demolition. You don’t have to travel far to find places like Danvers. Steel mills, libraries, schools, hospitals, jails and treatment plants are all incredible places to explore but safety always has to be your number one priority. Keep your eyes peeled, your ears open and your mind engaged because you never know what you will come across or experience.

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