Preserving Sheppard Pratt's legacy

METRO JOURNAL: Melanie Anson

August 21, 2002

SHEPPARD PRATT Health System is sending mixed signals -- some hopeful, some worrisome -- about the fate of historically noteworthy structures that may not survive if it builds a new inpatient psychiatric hospital on its Towson campus.

Prompting optimism is Sheppard Pratt's addition of prominent New York architect Robert Stern to its design team and Mr. Stern's published comments that the team will respect the "sacred landscape" even though "a few bits and pieces are going to be removed."

But neither Mr. Stern nor the hospital will specify what might be razed. Such vagueness shrouds the future of this historic campus in uncertainty. This is so because of Sheppard Pratt's previous demolition of significant structures, its past disregard of historic setting and its staunch opposition to final landmarks designation for four of 13 historic structures that the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission placed on the preliminary list in April.

Founded with an 1857 bequest from Moses Sheppard (and a later one from Enoch Pratt), the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt psychiatric hospital opened in 1891. It championed revolutionary changes in the treatment of the mentally ill, who for centuries had been secluded or chained in the dank basements of jails and almshouses.

Moses Sheppard and the hospital's trustees valued physical setting as integral to therapeutic treatment. Famed architect Calvert Vaux designed the main A and B hospital buildings, where patients were housed in pleasant rooms with windows to view the landscape.

Vaux's innovative design grouped patients according to the seriousness of their illness, fostering the beginnings of psychiatric classification. Other architects designed compatible structures, such as the 1895 power plant, whose smokestack and original water tanks are disguised in a soaring Italianate campanile, and an admissions wing that complements the A and B buildings.

Sheppard Pratt's enlightened leaders also realized that nature and natural surroundings contributed to mental well-being. They retained landscape architect Howard Daniels, designer of Baltimore's Druid Hill Park, to turn Sheppard Pratt's 375-acre Charles Street campus into a picturesque milieu, with winding roads and abundant greenery. From these insightful beginnings, Sheppard Pratt evolved into a renowned psychiatric hospital. Its campus was a jewel, admired by all.

Today, a ride through the once-spectacular campus is jarring.

On the north side, across from Vaux's grand A and B buildings, the wrecking ball has leveled the once-noteworthy president's house and Fordham Cottage, and many century-old trees have been cut down. Now new housing for Towson University students overwhelms the 1901 Shingle-style Casino building, an early center that pioneered occupational therapy activities and was saved only after protests.

But it was a pyrrhic victory for preservation; the construction obliterated the enticing setting so crucial to the Casino's historic integrity and allure. The fate of four other historically significant structures -- the power plant, the admissions wing, the barn with its impressive gambrel roof and the charming stone bridge -- remains unknown.

Sheppard Pratt opposes their addition to the final landmarks list, which would safeguard their preservation. The Baltimore County Council is almost certain to bow to Sheppard Pratt's demands when it votes on that list Sept. 3.

What happens after that will be up to Sheppard Pratt. It can call back the bulldozers. Or it can return to its progressive roots by adaptively reusing all 13 structures the preservation commission deemed historically significant and by designing its new hospital so as to preserve mature trees and crucial exterior spaces.

It might even consider using one of its buildings to house a permanent exhibit documenting its trailblazing role in the treatment of mental illness, a field still battling discrimination. Medical professionals, students and the public could learn much from the hospital's history.

Sheppard Pratt's campus, now reduced to about 80 acres, presents both challenges and second chances. Will it be designed to proclaim, once again, that setting and architecture are crucial to the mental health of patients and the general public alike?

Hanging in the balance are more than trees and aesthetics; at stake is whether Sheppard Pratt will honor or ignore its responsibilities as steward of Moses Sheppard's noble legacy. With Mr. Stern and other historically attuned consultants on its design team, there is hope. But without the final landmarks listing for all 13 historic structures, there are no guarantees.

Today's writer

Melanie Anson, a former lawyer with a Baltimore law firm, is a free-lance writer who has lived in Pikesville for 32 years.

Metro Journal provides a forum for examining issues and events in the region and welcomes contributions from readers.

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