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Between the Lines: The Belchertown of the Future

A solar village at the former Belchertown State School: it may be change long overdue.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014
Tom Vannah photo
Windsor Mallett

Windsor Mallett leads the way to the highest point of the former Belchertown State School campus. As he steps carefully to avoid the abundant poison ivy in his path, he describes his vision: an inclusive community filled with artisans and entrepreneurs and forward-looking people of all ages and backgrounds, living and working in energy-efficient homes and light industrial buildings of the future, fueled by a community-shared solar energy system and augmented by farm-to-table restaurants, a boutique hotel, recreational facilities that promote healthy living and an event center showcasing local arts.

Following him are three men Mallett has recruited to join his effort to redevelop the site, turning the disused property into a “solar artisan village”—a village he plans to call “BelArts.” Mike Sacenti and John McCarthy are experts in hotel development and asset management; John Sokol is a building contractor from Florida who has worked with McCarthy on other projects.

While it isn’t yet clear how, or whether, the three men will contribute to Mallett’s vision, their enthusiasm for the site is clear. When Mallett finishes sketching out his basic concept, the other three toss out questions and suggestions rapid-fire.

“What about incorporating horse-riding trails?” McCarthy says.

“Can you imagine getting one of the area colleges involved in creating an incubator that produces the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg?” Sacenti says.

A Sudbury-based designer and contractor, Mallett will unveil his plans to residents at an Aug. 6 meeting in Town Hall. In recent months, he’s worked closely with members of the Belchertown Economic Development Industrial Corporation, whose mission is to develop and implement a Town Meeting-approved plan “that maintains the small town look and feel, creates significant jobs and ideal business development that recognizes the past and enhances the future of the Town of Belchertown.” The BEDIC is working with MassDevelopment, the state’s finance and development authority, to redevelop the property, which has been abandoned for more than 20 years. MassDevelopment, which played a major role in the redevelopment of the former Northampton State Hospital, has already given its approval for an assisted living complex on a small parcel of the land. Mallett hopes BelArts will garner the same kind of support from MassDevelopment, then the voters and, ultimately, the BEDIC.

As I straggle behind Mallett and his group, snapping photos of abandoned buildings slowly yielding to relentless entropy, I stop for a minute and try to imagine what the place must have looked like before it was closed by the state in 1992.

The evening before, I’d spent hours poring over old photos, newspaper reports and historical records available online. Opened in 1922 as the Belchertown State School for the Feeble Minded, the institution was modeled on the Wrentham State School (1906) and the state’s oldest institution for developmentally disabled people, the Walter E. Fernald School in Waltham (1848). Wrentham and Fernald are still in operation today; Fernald, originally known as the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children, eventually became the Fernald Developmental Center. But the Belchertown State School is now a mere relic, a decaying reminder of the inhumane treatment to which developmentally disabled people in Massachusetts were once subjected.

By all accounts, the Belchertown school began as a noble effort to provide state-of-the-art care for people, particularly children, who were officially classified at the time as “morons,” “imbeciles” and “idiots.” Constructed on a beautiful 876-acre parcel with stunning views of the Holyoke Range to the north, the school comprised a number of elegant buildings designed by Kendall, Taylor & Company, a prominent Boston architectural firm. As well-intentioned as its founders may have been, however, the Belchertown State School became overcrowded and understaffed. Like many of the state hospitals built in the late 19th century and early 20th century—the state hospitals, including Northampton, housed the “mentally ill,” while state schools like Fernald, Wrentham and Belchertown were intended for the so-called “mentally defective”—the Belchertown school operated without much public scrutiny. By 1945, state officials charged with reviewing the school began calling for reforms, but they were ignored.

In 1972, Benjamin Ricci, a professor at UMass-Amherst whose son, Robert, lived at the school, filed a class action lawsuit against the state Department of Mental Health, calling attention to the terrible living conditions and lack of services at the school and leading to its eventual closing. Ricci later described the conditions at Belchertown in his book, Crimes Against Humanity:

“The sound of mournful wails, howling, and animal-like grunts filled the air. Urine, feces, and food were smeared over many nude bodies, especially of persons in seclusion rooms …” He went on to describe “a female resident seeking bladder relief, awkwardly perched on the wall-mounted urinal … maggots wriggling inside or crawling out of the infected ears of several helpless, profoundly retarded persons while they lay in their crib-beds … the sheets caked with moist or caked vomit…”

Now, as I stand in the center of the campus on a beautiful summer morning in late July, I recall a comment made to the New York Times in 1986 by Judge Joseph L. Tauro, who’d visited the Belchertown campus in 1973 and corroborated Ricci’s claims: “[The] rolling lawns made it look like a prep school, but inside … they had no closets, no doors on the toilets.”

When I catch back up to the group, Mike Sacenti, principal of East Longmeadow-based Hospitality Investment Management, is asking Mallett about the viability of saving some of the buildings. Sacenti points to the main administration building, wondering if it might be turned into a combination of apartments and workspace for students and young entrepreneurs. Sacenti says he’s been reading about the Maker Movement, where start-ups come together to share equipment and other resources they’d never be able to share on their own.

“It’s the future, boys,” Sacenti says.

Mallett nods, clearly delighted.

“I know the town would like to move past the darker history associated this site, while also respecting its past,” he says. “I think this project does that.”•

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