Walter E Fernald State School is an abandoned mental institution in Massachusetts, named after its third superintendent, Walter E. Fernald. It was originally called the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children, then Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children and most recently the Walter E Fernald Developmental Center.
Founded by Samuel Gridley Howe as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded in 1848, the school was originally located in South Boston. Howe was an abolitionist and reformer, who also founded the Perkins Institute for the Blind. His wife, Julia Ward Howe, wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Howe and the second superintendent, Edward Jarvis, had a primarily moral / religious mission, i.e. to make clean, productive, responsible citizens of high-functioning disabled youths.
History of Fernald State School
The Fernald State School education included classroom training, manual training at shoe repair, broom making, rag rug making, weaving, knitting and sewing and housekeeping, music therapy, dancing and athletics. But by the 1870s under Jarvis, the Fernald State School came under increasing pressure to accommodate adults with more chronic disabilities who required custodial care, and consequently the school needed more space.
In response to this pressure, the legislature appropriated in 1887 $25,000 for the purchase of land in
Waltham. The first purchase was the 18-acre Bird estate, located off Waverley Oaks Road, and in
1888, construction began for the school campus in Waltham. Before the school moved to Waltham,
this was farm land belonging primarily to the Bird, Baldwin, Lawrence and Warren families. Although
the school did grow a number of crops here, it was never intended as a hospital farm.
Instead, another institution in Templeton was established to grow food. Nevertheless, aerial photos show
that much of the western part of the campus was either wetlands or under cultivation. Indeed,
there once was a cow barn here large enough for 50 head of cattle, and a horse barn. Land
purchases continued into the twentieth century, so that the institution eventually encompassed
180+ acres of land between Trapelo Road and Waverley Oaks Road.
From 1889, the Fernald State School grew in size from 142 residents, to 494 in 1911, to 1,330 in 1926, to 1,890 in 1945, to its peak of 2,600 residents in the 1960s. The third superintendent (1888 – 1924), Walter
E. Fernald became an internationally renowned authority on mental retardation. Under his administration, the mission of the school changed to a more scientifically based pursuit.
With widespread implementation of IQ testing, children who tested below normal were labeled as retarded, and in some cases taken from their families and institutionalized. Walter E. Fernald was on the board of the Eugenics Society, and had initially advocated the forced sterilization of people with developmental disabilities. He later renounced this idea, and instead promoted strictly enforced segregation into state-run institutions.
The students were even the subject of medical experiments in the 1950s when the Quaker Oats company along with Harvard and MIT researchers fed boys cereal laced with radiation tracers. The Quaker Oats company eventually paid out over $1.85 million in damages to the victims.
In 1972, parents, guardians and advocates for the disabled sued the Commonwealth in federal court. The judge ordered increased state funding, and better treatment of the disabled. As a result of federal court
order, many residents were placed in community residential facilities, and the care of the remaining residents was vastly improved. A sprawling, one-storey cottage complex was built to provide more
intimate and home-like residences for those who remained. By 1979, the number of residents had
decreased to 1,161.
The hospital was brought up to a humane standard and operated above board for a number of decades, although the inmate population continually dwindled. MIT and Quaker Oats also settled in a class action suit regarding the radiation tests in 1998.
When did Fernald State School close?
By 2004, 248 patients were living in Fernald and in December 2004, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney announced the facility would be closed. Until 2013, a small number of patients still occupied a small cluster of buildings on a portion of the massive campus. The Fernald State School was closed and abandoned in 2014.
Who designed Walter E Fernald State School?
Most of the nineteenth century buildings were designed by one architect, William G. Preston, who
advocated a cottage concept laid out, not in a “checkerboard” fashion, but rather dispersed amid a
largely preserved landscape of rolling hills. Preston designed many of the buildings in a Queen Anne
style with Romanesque or Craftsman overtones.
The buildings have fieldstone foundations, red brick construction, sandstone trim, corbelled cornices, overhanging slate roofs and decorative brickwork. In the 1930s, another architect, Clarence P. Hoyt designed buildings in the colonial revival style common to state institutions of that era. Since the 1950s, construction at the institution has possessed no architectural design of merit and has greatly disturbed the landscape.