Sheppard-Pratt Hospital belies Grimm face

JACQUES KELLY

May 23, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The stone gatehouse in the 6500 block of N. Charles St. that is the entrance to the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System looks like the handiwork of the Brothers Grimm.

Sheppard-Pratt accepted its first patient 100 years ago. Since then, the hospital has helped thousands of patients, including Zelda Fitzgerald and Judy Garland.

Few Baltimoreans have ever traveled through the gatehouse, down the lane and past the banks of blooming rhododendron bushes that cling to the sides of a steep hill. On a high plateau between Charles Street and York Road, south of Towson, are the main Sheppard-Pratt buildings, a grouping seemingly inspired by 1860s millionaire's home on the banks of the Hudson River in New York.

The main buildings of this noble institution, used today much as they were in the 1890s, seem as much chateau as mental hospital. It might have been the kind of structure Walt Disney had in mind when he envisioned the castle for Snow White.

Sheppard-Pratt, whose buildings are fastidiously maintained and whose grounds are manicured, is the gift of 19th century Quaker merchant Moses Sheppard, who lived in a house on Pratt Street at Hopkins Place that still stands. Sheppard, who never married, wanted to help the unfortunates of his day, especially oppressed minorities. He was an advocate for American Indians and helped found Liberia asan African state for American blacks.

He was also determined to found an institution to help people often confined to damp cellars. His will directed that his assets be invested, with the interest used for construction of an asylum for the mentally ill. "No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, the amount of woe, which this Institution may be instrumental in relieving. Unborn generations will have reason to bless the name of Moses Sheppard," The Sun said in an editorial at the time of the benefactor's death in 1857.

New York architect Calvert Vaux was selected to design the hospital. Vaux was a major name in American architecture. His work included the bridges and scenic overlooks in New York City's Central Park in which he collaborated with Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.

The hospital's trustees did not hurry. They followed Vaux's plans and wound up with 11 million bricks and tons of stone, all obtained on the 341-acre Mount Airy Farm they purchased for the site in 1858.

The brick buildings followed European models, with separate, identical buildings for men and women. Each of the two structures was 820 feet from end to end.

Even the fanciful Victorian towers atop the buildings have a use. They were designed as water tanks.

The first patients in Sheppard-Pratt's buildings in 1891 found large, sunny rooms, brass handrails, stained-glass transoms and mahogany, tiled fireplaces. Their meals were served on linen-covered trays, with silver plate tea pots and imported china.

The trustees planted fruit trees in an orchard. There were fields to grow grain, and barns. The trustees' minutes of Jan. 7, 1889, inventoried " . . . 6 horses, 4 mules, 13 cows, 10 steers, 7 calves, 1 bull, 300 bushels of corn, 150 bushels oats, 160 bushels rye . . . 6 barrels vinegar." The hospital was to be thrifty and self-sufficient.

Philanthropist Enoch Pratt, who gave Baltimore its library system, also liked what he observed at the Sheppard Asylum. So he donated a good chunk of his estate with the stipulation that his namego on the place.

Over the years, the hospital earned an excellent reputation. It accepted those who could not pay and those who could, such as the Southern lady who had her own white cottage built on the grounds. It was here that, according to Sheppard-Pratt tradition, actress Judy Garland came for treatment. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to an old house just south of the hospital in the 1930s so he could be near his wife, Zelda, who was a patient.

The hospital has kept a very low profile for nearly all its life. The stigma of mental illness contributed to its reserve, as did the fact that the hospital was self-sufficient. Many of its employees lived on the grounds. To this day, there is an employees' waiting list for the gatehouse, which has two separate living units under its steep slate roof.

By the 1950s, Sheppard-Pratt was land rich. It sold off nearly 200 acres to Greater Baltimore Medical Center, St. Jjoseph Hospital and Towson State University. It also has been good to its patients.

Moses Sheppard's will stipulated that the hospitals's goal is " . . . the courteous treatment and the comfort of all patients."

Indeed. That stipulation was evident on a warm May afternoon this week. Patients relaxed in Gibson Island chairs and spoke with their physicians under copper beech trees on an emerald lawn.

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