To most at UConn, Depot campus is a virtual unknown. Although it is home to the Ballard Puppetry Institute and Museum, most k
now it only as a lonely quadrangle of buildings that entices urban explorers.
Peer inside the buildings: wheelchairs sit empty in the eerie silence of abandoned halls.
Paint is peeling and signs point the way to services that no longer exist. Though there are no markers, this was once home to an institute for the mentally challenged.
A place with many names
The school started life as the Connecticut School for Imbeciles at Lakeville. This was merged with the Colony of Epileptics in 1917 to become one of the largest institutions of its kind in the state.
In those days institutions were considered an effective solution to dealing with those with mental challenges. It was believed if they were corralled and given space to live in a colony, it would improve the ease of life, their condition, and keep them from being a danger to society or themselves.
In another incarnation, what is now Depot Campus was called Connecticut School for the Feebleminded. Later, it was called Mansfield Training School.
The treatment of patients was often primitive by modern standards.
The Depression and World War II brought a loss of staff positions and budget cuts, causing crowding and leaving dormitories full of people of all different ages, sexes, and conditions. At its height, the institution housed more than 1,800 patients.
At one point, some women patients were sterilized, a practice called eugenics. At the time, this was seen a humane answer to taking mental incompetency and criminal behaviors out of the gene pool. This practice was ended in the 1960s. At some points in the institution’s history, blind and deaf people, along with those whose behaviors were considered anti-social or delinquent, were housed at the school.
Fear of the patients
David O’Leary, an attendant at the school beginning in 1947, said in an interview with the Hartford Courant, “My indoctrination with Mansfield was, I was told, ‘Never let them touch you; they’re full of disease. Keep them at arm’s length’.”
Leary said he was told not to bring children’s books into the dorms. There were many who did not receive the individual attention they needed, and occasionally were placed in danger by being housed with more violent residents.
The Department of Mental Retardation later tried more progressive treatment methods and worked to change the school’s image.
In the 1970s and the 1980s many UConn students volunteered to work with the school’s residents, helping to socialize them and teach them valuable life skills.
A drastic change in philosophy of treating the developmentally disabled led to the school’s closure in the 1990s. Much of it has sat abandoned since 1993 when the school was officially shut down.
A new life for Depot Campus
When the former school became part of UConn, the property has become a peaceful place. It is the concourse for the K-9 Olympics in the summer. Raccoons have built nests in some light fixtures. UConn’s ornithology department is studying chimney swift nests there.
Some former dormitories have been renovated as classrooms. One of the most recent additions is an alternative learning program for some E.O. Smith High School students.
Further reading: A New York Times article from 1982 about the downfall of the institution.
To see a gallery with more photos from Depot Campus, click after the jump.