Depot Campus holds secrets of the past
Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 21:10
To most students, the Depot Campus is a strange and relatively unimportant corner of the UConn world. Many know about the vacant buildings there and its past as a mental institution, but few know the whole story. Those buildings are some of the most interesting at UConn and their story is fascinating, historic and possibly illegal.
The disused, crumbling buildings at the Depot Campus were once the Mansfield Training School Mental Hospital, and 60 of them are on the National Register of Historic Sites. That law, and its state counterpart, the Environmental Policy Act, are supposed to protect historic sites from the neglect the Training School buildings have received since they came under UConn ownership.
The buildings currently receive almost no maintenance. Most of them are vacant and falling apart quickly. Some have holes in their roofs, many more are missing windows and are constantly exposed to the elements. Even the ones experiencing minimal use (usually for storage) are dangerous. The university specifies that anyone going into what was once the Knight Hospital has to have mold and asbestos awareness training and wear protective gear ranging from a dust mask to a full body suit.
In its heyday, the center’s buildings were state of the art. The oldest Training School buildings are more than 100 years old, and the oldest building on the 350-acre property is a cottage built in 1848. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the center was established in 1909 as the Connecticut Colony for Epileptics. Later, the Connecticut School for Imbeciles was moved there and the two centers were merged in 1917 into the Connecticut Training School for the Feebleminded. The last part of the title was later dropped and the center became the Mansfield Training School and Hospital.
The history of the Training School provides a fascinating look at the treatment of mental illness over the last century. When the center was built, epilepsy was considered a mental ailment, and while the patients were segregated by gender, epileptics and mentally ill patients lived together. Farm work was thought to be beneficial to those with epilepsy, so the Spring Manor Farm adjacent to the property was worked by many of the patients. The farm provided the center with almost all of its food. The children at the center (many born to unwed mothers, who were often institutionalized at that time) hand molded the concrete blocks used to build the barns on the farm.
The Training School grew to house 1,609 residents and employ 875 full-time staff members by 1969. In 1993, the center was closed amid lawsuits from former patients.
All of this history is currently rotting away under the supervision of the University. The historical significance isn’t the only thing being neglected, safety is also a huge issue with the buildings. While regular citizens are forbidden from entering, the buildings are far from secure. It’s widely known among Mansfield high schoolers and many UConn students that the buildings are accessible. I know several people who’ve been inside and said there were beer bottles and empty cigarette packs scattered around. A quick Google search of the Depot Campus turns up hits on urban exploration and ghost hunter blogs.
Clearly, safety isn’t a major priority. If the university doesn’t intend to preserve any of the buildings’ historic value, they should be demolished. As time goes on, they will only become more difficult and expensive to remove as they decay. Even minimal preservation work, such as covering the roof holes and windows would slow the rate of decay and make it much cheaper when the university does decide to tear down the buildings.
In the meantime, the neglect of the old Training School could be illegal. The National Historic Preservation Act tasks State Historical Preservation Offices with implementing a comprehensive preservation plan to assist in maintaining historic places, and states that any sites on the registry must go through a review process before they can be altered or demolished.
Connecticut also has a preservation act. The Environmental Policy Act states that sites on the National Register are to be “maintained in a way that considers their historic, archaeological, architectural and cultural values.” Provisions 22a-15 through 22a-19 allow for cases to be brought against the state if they are deemed “applicable to the unreasonable destruction of historic structures.” UConn Master Planner and Architect Laura Cruickshank said in a letter that the university has no immediate plans for the Training School buildings and did not address questions about the above laws.
If safety and preservation were the university’s main concerns, their options would be to demolish the decaying buildings or secure them from trespassers and fix major problems to prevent further decay. Unfortunately, neither of those considerations seem to be a priority.