As some of you know, I am a Yankee transplant to a southern state. As my business has grown, I’ve naturally returned to familiar grounds for picking. Each trip I make to the New York tri-state area takes my mind to imagine what my life would be like had I stayed there to grow into adulthood. The whole experience is always nostalgic.
This summer I had the pleasure of dinner with a friend from third grade who mentioned she walks at Fairfield Hills. By “Fairfield Hills” she means the old Fairfield State Hospital, a mental institution high on a hill that has always resembled a beautiful college campus. As a teenager I volunteered my time there, doing puzzles or playing Bingo with its residential patients. There were no fences or authorities watching over the recreation room where I was. I was never frightened or hesitant about going up there once a week.
Long after I moved to Virginia, Fairfield Hills closed, along with most other residential mental hospitals across the country.
The day after supper with my friend, I decided to drive up there and walk a little myself. I was overcome with the contrasts I saw. Some of the buildings had been torn down. Many were in utter disrepair with overgrowth trying to overtake them. But some have been and are being gutted and renovated for various purposes. The whole complex is now called Newtown Municipal Park. One building houses adjunct town offices, one is being transformed into a community center, while a smaller one is being reimagined into a brewery; its signature brew to be called Asylum. There are new sidewalks and landscaping, and those were peppered with moms and strollers, dog walkers and joggers. The many large green spaces are now athletic fields.
On my walk, however, I wanted a peek into these buildings and what life was like there during their thriving days. Not the medical end of things, just the architecture, intent of each and building details. I walked along the lane where the doctors lived with their families. I peeked past broken windows into what seemed to be the activity building, as it had a room with cabinets for art supplies and even a few paintings still on the walls. It looked like one room was a theatre with a raised structure for a stage, a gymnasium with shuffleboard numbers painted on its wooden floor, and a teaching kitchen with multiple sinks and labels on the cabinet doors. That one reminded me of my home economics classroom in high school.
When I returned to Virginia and told my family about my trip, my son wanted to know if the whole thing was creepy. I told him it wasn’t creepy, just a little bittersweet that this beautiful compound is transitioning into something else. Yet I could still imagine families pulling into the grand circular driveway and walking into the mahogany-clad reception room to deliver their loved one, in the hopes he or she could be helped.
I also realized that the new generation of Newtownians have no recollection of any of that. They see beautiful hydrangeas and soccer fields against a backdrop of stately brick structures.
I definitely plan to monitor the progress of the Newtown Municipal Park the next time I am junking near my beloved home town.