Inside Northampton State Lunatic Asylum

Exterior view of Northampton State Hospital, a.k.a. The Lunatic Asylum at Northampton

Few places hold the power to chill the spine more than an abandoned mental institution. And few abandoned mental institutions could thrill the senses like the Northampton State Hospital, formerly perched on Hospital Hill in Northampton, Mass. Initially intended to sooth the nervous mind with relaxing colors, music and art, this “Lunatic Asylum,” as it was first called, was a true masterpiece of architecture.

Bathing room with slab tub. The lights on the wall were temperature warning indicators.

Originally, each ward at Northampton had a unique color scheme and architectural theme. The colors were cheery and soothing shades of robin’s egg blue, bright yellow and mellow green. As evidenced by the seemingly endless layers of peeling paint, the idea of color therapy was lost as the institutions declined under the crushing weight or overcrowding, under-funding and state deinstitutionalization. It’s doubtful that the blood red repaint of this room was of any therapeutic value.

Ornate, curving wooden balcony in the hospital’s auditorium

Along with open grounds, plentiful light and beautiful surroundings, art and music were key therapies for the mentally afflicted.


Balcony seating in the auditorium. Music was an integral part of patient therapy. It’s doubtful, though, that patients were allowed up to these lofty heights. Notice the precipitous drop to the auditorium floor.

The detail in this wooden balcony, found in the hospital’s auditorium, is a testament to the craftsmanship of a bygone era.


Cafeteria window. The hospital was filled with decorative features. The philosophy was that beautiful surroundings calmed the “lunatic” mind.

Open dining was reserved for the stable and less violent patients. The cafeteria, while utilitarian and austere compared to other architectural features found in the hospital, still had plenty of light flooding in and decorative windows, through which the patients could watch the endless seasons roll by. The balconies also gave guards a bird’s eye view of the feeding population should any trouble occur.

An image of the hospital morgue. The pathology lab was left nearly intact along with brain sections belonging to autopsied patients.

Bizarre as it seems, the morgue was located in a tunnel under the cafeteria. Access to the morgue and pathology laboratory was through a door actually located inside the dining room. This was not a planned feature, as the cafeteria, named the Olander, was a later addition.


Ward door. The small window was the patient’s only view into the hospital, and the hospital workers’ only view into the patient’s small, lonely world. Ward rooms also had barred windows facing out onto the grounds.

Even the ward doors had interesting features. These diamond-shaped windows — through which orderlies could peer at the patients and presumably through which the patients would peer back — were unique to this particular ward. An interesting feature — but one designed with the violent mentally ill in mind — they had only slits and were constructed of safety glass sandwiched between steel plates.

Curving windows on a ward floor. Patients could sit here and have a slightly expanded view of the outside world which was forbidden to them.

Light was believed to be a key therapy. These rounded bay-type window features were a repeating design element throughout the hospital. Ward-bound patients could sit and gaze through them at the expansive grounds surrounding the hospital. While most were not allowed outside, they at least had the chance to see a bit of the world denied to them.


Lobotomy table rusting in a dark tunnel under the hospital.

Radical changes in temperature were believed to be detrimental to the “insane.” Massachusetts winters can be brutal, and the summers, while relatively short, were punctuated by fierce thunderstorms. All of this was believed to make nervous patients even more so. Tunnels running under the buildings facilitated patient movement in inclement weather. They also served, in later years, as storage for some of the more grim medical apparatus employed in the hospital. The table above was used by patients undergoing lobotomies.

An antique IV bottle. Various antique medical ephemera were stored in the hospital’s extensive tunnel system, along with patient records and belongings. All are now lost to history after the demolition of the hospital.

The State Hospital at Northampton fell to the developer’s axe exactly 150 years after it opened. It’s gone, along with the noble hopes of its former medics. Condominiums overlooking the Connecticut River now occupy Hospital Hill, vainly attempting to mimic the once-magnificent architecture. I personally cannot imagine living there with the dreams and nightmares of the mad surely still capering about in the surrounding woods.

Read more about Northampton State Hospital and other abandoned and forbidden locations in the author’s book The Forbidden Tourist.