Old Main and the Kirkbride Plan: Architecture to Heal
By Sydney Burt ('18)
While medication and therapy are emphasized in the treatment of mentally ill people today, physicians and hospital superintendents in the nineteenth century felt that physical setting was the most important factor in a patient’s recovery. Designs for mental hospitals built in this time varied, but every mental health professional agreed that the architecture of an asylum and its surrounding environment deserved careful attention. The original building of the Northampton State Hospital was designed in 1855 by Jonathan Preston, a builder-architect from Boston who also designed such notable buildings as the Rogers Building of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Construction of the hospital cost $315,000 and was completed in 1858. Preston designed Old Main according to the Kirkbride Plan, an architectural plan for asylums devised by the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, Dr. Thomas Kirkbride. Features of the Kirkbride Plan corresponded with the ideology of Moral Treatment, the dominant approach to mental illness at the time that called for gentle care and daily routine in a relaxed natural setting.
Kirkbride buildings had a linear setback scheme to easily divide patients based on gender and severity of illness, and short pavilions allowed for proper ventilation through the wards. These buildings were designed to house no more than 250 patients to ensure sufficient doctor-patient interaction. Still, if the patient population increased, the shallow V-shape of the building meant that new wings could be easily added on to the ends. The surrounding land was also critical to the plan, as soothing vistas could help ease the anxieties of many patients coming from hectic urban areas. Pictured above is the original architectural plan for Old Main.
Shortly after opening, overcrowding and under funding for staff and maintenance plagued the hospital. In response to an increasing patient population, additions were built on Old Main in the early twentieth century, and the Memorial Complex was constructed nearby. The hospital closed in 1993, and despite organized protest from community members, the Old Main building was demolished in 2006. Pictured right is an aerial view of Old Main published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 2001.