I remember when my sister Mary was assigned to her six-week psychology rotation at Saint Francis School of Nursing at Norwich Hospital. This 800+ acre campus was impressive for a high school freshman. Buildings were everywhere, some had big dark green screens and bars that you would find in a prison.
My parents and I toured the rooms where my sister worked. To move from building to building, we walked through large brick-lined tunnels, where patients could walk from building to building in all weathers for various treatments. I was told that at the back of this campus there were large tunnels where tractor-trailer trucks could enter, allowing frozen food to be placed in underground freezers. One small thing I remember about this tour – the more keys an employee carried, the more responsible they were.
At first, this area was once known as Brewster’s Neck, which is a neck or point of land that juts out 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 local Native Americans.
In the Norwich Bulletin of February 6, 1897, there was a newspaper article about the Board of Trade dealing with a petition proposal from the Norwich Electric Light and Gas companies (prior to its purchase by the City of Norwich in 1904). The company applied for a charter change to address the issue of having a crazy retirement in Norwich.
Around this time, Dr Cassidy, a long-established and well-respected doctor in Norwich, suggested tackling this and ‘making people aware of their danger’. The land was eventually given to the City of Norwich and the state legislature established the Norwich State Hospital for the Insane in 1903.
By an Act of the Legislature of 1920 the name was changed to The Norwich State Hospital. In 1961 the name was again changed to Norwich Hospital.
The Norwich Hospital for the Insane opened its doors to patients in 1904. One of the first superintendents of the hospital supported the choice of mechanical restraints for patients rather than drugs as a means of treating their ailments. Later this changed, and new psychoactive drugs began to be used in the treatment of patients. Campus residential accommodation was expanded due to overcrowding. Between 1905 and 1913, 16 buildings were erected in the French Gothic style to accommodate a patient census of 998. The administration building was constructed with annex buildings for staff residences, doctors’ residences, maintenance , laboratories and farm buildings while intoxicated. As the need grew, more buildings were added to help establish a very progressive occupational therapy department. The land was cultivated by the patients to produce some of their staple foods as part of the OT treatment.
Staffing became a major issue during the World War II years when nurses, doctors and laborers entered the armed forces. In 1947, the hospital became an accredited psychology teaching hospital by the American Medical Association.
The State of Connecticut invested funds in the hospital to enable it to become more self-sufficient and up-to-date. The City of Norwich provided water for daily use at the facility. Large reservoirs were built at the highest point for adequate water and pressure.
The state decided to drill wells for its use in the hospital and cut costs. Unfortunately, salt water seeping through the rock strata of the River Thames meant that the hospital had to continue to use water supplied by Norwich.
In the 1950s, new buildings were added to help treat patients. With the help of new drugs, such as thorazine, this change has helped patients blend into society.
The hospital’s census peaked at 3,186 patients in 1955. Lodge and Kettle buildings were constructed, resulting in the closure of three buildings; Butler, Cutter and Dix. Severely disabled patients from these rear buildings were moved to the new facilities on campus.
Norwich Hospital closed in 1997. Today the tunnels are either closed or destroyed, and most of the buildings have been razed. The brick from the French Gothic structures that were demolished ended up being salvaged by the contractor and is now being used in New York City for the renovation of brownstone structures.
Bill Shannon is a retired Norwich Public School teacher and long-time resident of Norwich.