On most days, the rolling grounds of the former mental health facility Medfield State Hospital are filled with people soaking up the fresh air — dog walkers with dogs running through the hills, families pushing baby carriages, locals power-walking and chatting about their days. The site is a sanctuary by the Charles, at an enviable site between Boston, Worcester and Providence that’s shrouded in trees. If the views of the 128-acre landscape aren’t enough, 35 stunning buildings built in the late 1800s and since abandoned — most made of brick and many with once-grand facades — beckon from the core campus of the hospital. You could easily switch off your phone and imagine you’ve stumbled into the past.
The town of Medfield and the Cultural Alliance of Medfield, though, have all eyes on the future as they reimagine this historic landmark into a cultural hub that will inspire generations. Still in the early stages, plans are to revive the property with a mix of indoor and outdoor performing arts and education venues, and even a culinary arts center. The plans include the reuse and rehabilitation of the historic buildings when possible, as well as the construction of new structures with the eventual inclusion of artist residence spaces, mixed-income housing, senior housing and some commercial space.
“It's about building the facilities to support music, education, creation and performance,” says Jean Mineo, the president of the board of the Cultural Alliance of Medfield. “Ultimately, the idea is to support artists from the very beginning stages of learning an instrument to where the professionals can also present.”
This isn’t the first time that the facility has been involved in the arts. Projects like the 2010 Martin Scorsese flick “Shutter Island” starring Leonardo DiCaprio filmed at the site, as well as the more recent “Knives Out.” In fact, past events on the campus, along with concerts and holiday light shows, have included drive-in showings of these films. And you can spy poems composed by locals painted on some of the buildings, in partnership with the local library.
With all this planned growth, we can’t forget the (too often tragic) pasts of psychiatric hospitals. When the facility opened in 1896, originally known as the Medfield Insane Asylum for the Chronic Insane, it held promise. Built in the “cottage style” with multiple buildings, the intention was that residents would travel around the campus daily, allowing them to enjoy fresh air and socialization. The initial capacity was set to 1,000 patients, with 25 buildings including the stunning chapel, and residents arrived from over-crowded mental health facilities in Taunton, Danvers and elsewhere. The early years seemed focused on “warehousing” — an unfortunate colloquial term that the American Psychological Association describes as a level of care that’s little more than basic housing and food — with early reports from superintendent Edward French showing a lack of interest in patient deaths.
Overcrowding grew over the years, with the resident population ballooning past 2,300 around the 1940s. And there were reports of staff abuse and the injury and death of residents, according to John Thompson, the chair of the buildings and grounds committee at the state hospital, who researched the history as part of the cultural hub project. An article in The Boston Globe on January 22, 1898, describes a judge issuing a warrant for the arrest of an orderly who lowered a patient into a bath of scalding water, leading to the patient’s death.
But that’s not to say all treatment methods were callous. In the 1930s, the staff formed an orchestra and performed for residents as a form of art therapy before its wider use around the country. And starting in the 1950s, the barbaric “treatment” practices — like shock treatments and scalding baths — were abolished thanks in part to new psychotropic drugs, which revolutionized mental health care and allowed more residents to return to life outside the facility. After declining for many years, structural problems of the buildings led to the eventual closure of the Medfield State Hospital in 2003, and the town purchased the property in 2014.
Local committees spent years researching the property’s possible future. Mineo, who for 10 years ran the New Art Center nonprofit community arts space in Newton, says about four and a half years were spent surveying the community. A special town meeting was called in 2018 to vote on the board of selectman entering into a 99-year lease with the Cultural Alliance of Medfield for part of the hospital campus, with the aim of creating a cultural center, and the vote passed unanimously. Surveys on Facebook and elsewhere made it clear that locals wanted to maintain public access to the campus and hoped that plans could salvage the iconic chapel at the heart of the property.
Phase one of the project includes renovating the chapel and the nearby infirmary, with a new entrance linking the buildings. The chapel will be home to a live music and events space with seating for 300 and the infirmary will see educational studios and multimedia events spaces for children and adults alike. A five-year fundraising campaign and about two years of construction puts the tentative opening of this space around 2027. Starting this July, though, locals and visitors can enjoy concerts in forthcoming tents and outdoor stages.
Now, visitors to the grounds will notice new splashes of color among the historic brick buildings. The Cultural Alliance of Medfield tasked Massachusetts-based artist Cedric Douglas, who creates work under the name Vise1, to paint a mammoth mural on one of the facades. “A lot of the work I do has some type of social component where it’s representing someone that's underrepresented or it’s talking about social issues through portraiture,” Douglas says. For this latest work, which he started painting on May 10 and will wrap up around May 21, he researched the history of the grounds and the town, and hoped to pay homage to Medfield’s artistic past and present, from landscape painter George Inness to the robust music program in the public schools. He took a portrait of local violinist and Medfield High School student Tamlyn Fong to incorporate into the design, which also features native plant life like purple coneflower, which has been used in herbal remedies for its purported healing aspects.
“Nature and art are both forms of healing, and this being a mental health institution that used art as therapy and healing,” he says. “It just made sense to kind of bring all those elements together.”
Called “The Healing Properties of Art and Nature,” the title was inspired by an interaction with a Medfield resident who saw Douglas’ early concept art and understood his message right away. “I felt good,” Douglas continues, “‘cause you create a work of art and you put so much thought into it and you're trying to make it connect to the community and make sure it's meaningful.”
As plans for the cultural center unfold, one thing is clear for Mineo. “This is about much more than a building,” she says. “It's about creating community, and opportunities for shared experiences to spark imaginations, nurture artistic work and foster creative expression.”