Historic Houses of the Month Charlestown’s Asylum for the Insane

By Nancy Hayford Kueny

If you stood on Town Hill in 1800 and gazed westward across what was Charles River Bay at the confluence of Miller’s Creek, you would have seen the magnificent brick mansion of Joseph Barrell (1739-1804).  Barrell had purchased 211 acres of countryside in the area known as Miller’s or Cobble Hill, which until 1842 was part of Charlestown.  It subsequently became part of Somerville. 

Barrell was a wealthy Boston merchant involved in shipping and had owned ships that were commissioned as privateers during the Revolution. A ship that he and his syndicate owned, the Columbia, made history by being the first American ship to circumvent the globe (1787-1790) under the command of Captain John Kendrick, a journey that became known as the Columbia Expedition. One of Barrell’s business partners was Charles Bullfinch (1763-1844) the noted architect, and in 1793 he designed a country house for his friend Joseph Barrell. 

The mansion, known as Pleasant Hill, was sited to look out across Boston Harbor.  Bullfinch designed a seven-bay two-story brick country house. The central portion of the southeastern façade featured a semi-circular portico, which above the ground level ascended for two stories and was surmounted by a dentilled cornice beneath the roofline. On the northwestern side of the mansion was a centrally placed much simpler square portico which served as the carriage entrance. Within the mansion, there was a magnificent double staircase which is now ensconced in the Somerville Museum.  The grounds of the mansion were unparalleled.  Barrell envisioned and created a beautifully landscaped working farm, and it was comprised of majestic terraced lawns that went down to the water, specimen trees, gardens, a two hundred foot heated greenhouse with oleander, orange, olive and lemon trees, stables, dove-cotes, a fish pond, a barn and a boat house.

Pleasant Hill would have been just across Charles River Bay from the Charlestown State Prison (1805) and the Phipps Street Burial Ground. (It is labeled ‘Insane Hospital’ on the Peter Tufts Plan of Charlestown Peninsula 1818).  What is now Rutherford Avenue and the Commuter Rail tracks, now landfill, used to be water all the way to the Charlestown Neck. Much of what had been the Barrell estate grounds is currently the industrial zone in Somerville that one accesses by turning at the Holiday Inn on the way to Union Square. 

On Feb. 25, 1811 the Massachusetts Legislature granted a charter to the Massachusetts General Hospital Corporation for the purpose of treating both physical and mental illnesses.  Emerging psychiatric theories in the early 19th century in Europe and America were evolving, and one theory was that humane treatment of mental illness could be better accomplished by providing patients with a calm, bucolic retreat.  Pleasant Hill in Charlestown offered just such an atmosphere, and in 1816 the Massachusetts General Hospital Corporation purchased 18 acres of land, a small part of the 211 acre Barrell Estate.  Bullfinch, the original architect, became involved with adapting the mansion for its new purpose as a hospital, as well as laying out the initial design for two flanking patient wings in 1817.  The mansion became the home of the first superintendent, Rufus Wyman, MD, as well as the administrative offices for the hospital. The superintendent’s house (the original mansion) was 75’ x 45’ and the patient buildings, one for men and one for women were 76’ x 40’ and three stories high.  The conversion was accomplished and the hospital received its first patients in November of 1818. A division of Massachusetts General Hospital, it was known as the “Asylum for the Insane”.  At that time it was only the fourth institution in the country created specifically for the treatment of mental illness, and the first in Boston.

However, by 1824 it became apparent that there was much need for additional patient accommodations.  In 1826 the hospital was renamed McLean Asylum for the Insane in honor of the wealthy Boston merchant John McClean, whose bequests to the hospital eventually reached $120,000 upon the death of his widow.  The following year, alterations to the three existing buildings began. The Barrell Mansion was enlarged with the addition of another story, surmounted by a pedimented mid-section.  The patient wings were similarly enlarged is 1828 and 1837, and domes were added to both buildings. Although some historians have attributed these alterations to Bullfinch, the historian Nina Fletcher Little feels that Dr. Wyman had his hand in the design as well. Dr. Wyman had hoped to add a new free standing building behind the Barrell Mansion, but that was never constructed.  One of the most beautiful representations of the McLean Hospital on Cobble Hill, and one that shows the beauty and symmetry of its buildings, was reproduced as the frontispiece of Frothingham’s History of Town Life (1845).

In 1844, 13 East Coast asylum superintendents, including then superintendent Luther V. Bell, MD, founded what is now known as the American Psychiatric Association.  Dr. Bell was a Charlestown resident who lived on the Concord Avenue side of Monument Square.  By the late 1870s, the bucolic attributes of Cobble Hill were waning.  The area had become compromised by industrial development and railroad tracks which actually encroached on hospital grounds. The trustees set out to find a new location for the hospital.  In July of 1873, 107 acres of Wellington Hill in Belmont were purchased and planning and construction of the new hospital began.  The new McLean Hospital was opened on October 1, 1995, exactly 77 years after the opening of the Charlestown Asylum for the Insane. The magnificent Barrell mansion and surrounding hospital buildings were demolished that same year. 

Sources:  Early Buildings of the Asylum at Charlestown,1795-1846 by Nina Fletcher Little, Old Charlestown by Timothy Sawyer, A Century of Town Life by James F. Hunnewell, History of Charlestown by Richard Frothingham, Jr, Somerville Museum, Wikipedia, Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam, McLean Hospital.org

© Nancy Hayford Kueny

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