I remember when my sister Mary was assigned to have her six-week psych rotation from Saint Francis School of Nursing at the Norwich Hospital. This 800-plus-acre campus was impressive to an adolescent just in the first year of high school. The buildings were everywhere, some having heavy dark green screens and bars you’d find in a jail.
My parents and I had a tour of the wards my sister worked on. To travel from one building to another we walked through large brick-lined tunnels, where patients could walk from one building to another in all types of weather for various treatments. I was told that in the back area of this campus there were large tunnels where semi-trailer trucks could drive into, allowing frozen food to be placed into underground freezers. One little item I remember about this tour — the more keys an employee carried, the higher up they were in responsibility.
At first this area was once known as Brewster’s Neck, which is a neck or point of land jutting into the Thames River and Poquetanuck Cove. This area was a land grant from the King of England and at one time a trading station for the local Native Americans.
In the Norwich Bulletin from Feb. 6, 1897, there was a news article about the Board of Trade addressing a proposed petition from the Norwich Electric Light and Gas companies (prior to when it was bought by the City of Norwich in 1904). The company requested a change of charter to address the question about having an insane retreat in Norwich.
At that time Dr. Cassidy, a long-established and highly respected physician in Norwich, suggested that this should be fought against and “the citizens should be roused to realize their danger.” The land was finally donated to the City of Norwich, and the state legislature established the Norwich State Hospital for the Insane in 1903.
By an Act of Legislature in 1920, the name was changed to The Norwich State Hospital. In 1961, the name was changed once again to the Norwich Hospital.
The Norwich Hospital for the Insane opened to patients in 1904. One of the early superintendents of the hospital supported the choice of mechanical restraints for the patients rather than medication as a way of addressing their ailments. At a later date this was changed and new psychoactive medications began being used in the treatment of the patients. The campus residential housing was expanded because of over-crowding. Between 1905 and 1913, 16 buildings were erected in the French Gothic style to cope with a patient census of 998. The Administration Building was built along with ancillary buildings for staff residences, physician residences, maintenance, laboratories and the inebriate farm buildings. As the need grew, more buildings were added to assist in establishing a very progressive Occupational Therapy Department. The land was farmed by the patients to produce some of their staple foods as part of the O.T. treatment.
Staffing became a major problem during the World War II years when some nurses, doctors and workers entered the armed forces. In 1947, the hospital became an accredited teaching hospital of psychology by the American Medical Association.
The State of Connecticut invested funds into the hospital to allow it to become more self-sufficient and up-to-date. The City of Norwich supplied water for everyday use to the facility. Large tanks were built at the highest point for adequate water and pressure.
The state decided to drill wells for its use at the hospital and to reduce costs. Unfortunately, infiltration of salt water through the rock strata from the Thames River caused the hospital to continue using the supplied water from Norwich.
In the 1950s, new buildings were added to help care for the patients. With the help of new medications, such as thorazine, this change resulted in helping patients blend into society.
The hospital census peaked at 3,186 patients in 1955. Lodge and Kettle buildings were constructed, bringing about the closure of three buildings; Butler, Cutter and Dix. The severely challenged patients from these back buildings were transferred to the new campus facilities.
The Norwich Hospital closed its doors in 1997. Now, the tunnels are either closed up or destroyed, and most buildings have been razed. The brick from the French Gothic style structures that were demolished ended up being reclaimed by the contractor and are now being used in New York City for the refurbishing of brownstone structures.
Bill Shannon is a retired Norwich Public School teacher and a lifelong resident of Norwich.