There’s a kind of universal smell to old buildings. It’s a mix of powdered plaster and paint, of dried leaves and mildew, that you seem to get whenever you walk into a building that has died.
The air was cold, almost unusually so for a warm day in early October. Sunlight streamed through cracked windowpanes and the vines that covered them. Broken glass crunched under my boots.
Printed curtains still hung from the windows. Storage labels were stuck to lonely cupboards-- peaches, canned goods, corn- all remnants of a building that once had use.
This is what has become of the Mansfield Training School. Once a thriving institution for the mentally ill, the buildings have been abandoned for over 20 years, left to the elements to rot.
“Usually the first thing that leads to the decay of the building is when they shut the heat off,” Michael Makuch, University of Connecticut fire marshal said, as he shone a light on the cracking, flaking walls of a former storage house. “The paints starts to peel as the moisture changes with the seasons.”
Though the building is gutted, signs of its former purpose still linger. Radiators and heaters are bolted high up on the walls, out of reach of patients who could potentially be burned.
In the basement, there’s a square room with lines of showerheads on the walls and no partitions between them- a group shower room, so that nurses and assistants could get patients clean quickly and efficiently under supervision. A lonely bathtub, unfilled for decades, sits to the side.
Founded in 1919, the Mansfield Training School, then called the ‘Connecticut School for Imbeciles at Lakeville,’ started with a couple of farms and expanded over the years. By 1960, it spanned 840 acres, had 96 different buildings and housed 1870 patients, ranging from the ages of six to 69.
Some were permanent residents, unable to care for themselves due to the severity of their disabilities. Others were taught to work, making concrete bricks and working on the farmland located on campus so that they could live independently later on.
The Mansfield Training School, according to Makuch, was at one point fairly self sufficient, with its own electrical system, dairy, pig and poultry farms, utilities and even a carpentry shop. Facilities included housing for both the patients and nurses, along with storage and utilities such as electricity and plumbing.
Though the Training School wasn’t part of UConn when it was still in operation, students and professors would use the school as a teaching tool.
Nursing students worked at the school as part of “A Short Term Mental Retardation Learning Experience,” according to a UConn School of Nursing handbook from 1966, which included instructions on the shifts of the nurses working at the school, along with the vaccination given to the patients- which included inoculations against diphtheria, tetanus and polio, which was given in a sugar cube ‘as needed.’
The population of patients declined, however, and fewer buildings were utilized. In 1978 the Connecticut Association of the Retarded on behalf of the patients, citing that the standard of living for the patients had dropped, filed a lawsuit. The school was officially closed in 1993.
UConn was given to the campus by the state in 1993. Before that, in 1985, the school was officially proposed and entered into the State Register of Historic Places due to the historical significance of the buildings from the early 1900s.
This presents a dilemma. Though some of the buildings on what is now called Depot Campus have been revitalized and are currently being used for various purposes, such as the Fire Marshall’s Office and UConn Four Arrows, others are simply boarded up and protected, for the sake of safety.
“Many of the buildings are old and were already in very poor shape before they were turned over to UConn, and would be extremely costly to renovate and repair,” UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said. “We cannot tear them down without specific state permission, since the area is part of a historic district.”
Thus, the buildings are left in a state of limbo, unable to be torn down, yet unable to be repaired. Though the UConn police take care to patrol the buildings to prevent break-ins, vandals still find their way into buildings, breaking windows and scrawling graffiti on the walls.
Mother Nature, however, takes the prize as the most destructive force upon the structures. Fire escapes have rusted to nothing, vines crawl up the walls and trees grow through the foundations, turning the buildings into indoor forests.
As tempting as it is for student urban explorers to investigate, Makuch urges against this.
“There’s potential for lead, asbestos, mold… they’re not physically safe,” he said. “There’s no lighting. It’s crumbling.”
Utility tunnels pose a hazard as well, Makuch said, as the underground channels (which were once used much like UConn’s steam tunnels) have been reported to collapse.
The worst? The Knight Hospital, the Roman-columned building that’s the most famous of the Training School, has what Makuch describes as a ‘two inch layer of slime’ on the ground, made up of mold and moisture.
“We don’t go in there without a Hazmat team,” said Makuch. “It’s significantly dangerous to people’s health.”
It doesn’t stop people. Though a group of Daily Campus photographers and I were able to acquire an official tour led by Makuch, students still try and make their way in with less-than-legal techniques. Earlier in September, two students were arrested on charges of trespassing into the Knight Hospital.
This time of year especially holds an allure to students, as tales of former patients haunting the buildings draw would-be Ghostbusters and thrillseekers.
“It becomes a very attractive nuisance this time of year,” Makuch said. “I have not seen any [paranormal activity] here myself.”
At this point, all UConn can do is keep students from entering the buildings, Reitz said.
“Unless someone comes in and invests in renovating [them], there’s not much we can do,” Reitz said. “While we understand there’s curiosity about the buildings’ interiors, our safety obligations are our top priority, and therefore the University strongly enforces the no-trespassing regulations at the site.”
The future of the Training School remains unknown. UConn has no current plans for the buildings not in use, Reitz said, though the different ways to utilize property are under consideration.
“At one point, it was a very well-built set of buildings,” Makuch said.
For now, however, they will have to wait.
Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.