Hospital seeks care from state

Cuts: As lawmakers look to solve the state's budget gap, the sprawling yet underused Crownsville Hospital Center is viewed as a likely target.

February 14, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Remnants of Crownsville Hospital Center's past are spread across the mental health institution's expansive campus in north Anne Arundel County.

Under the blue carpet and 10 pews in the hospital's chapel is a slat-wood floor from when the chapel was a potato barn. Across a gravel path is a building with a collapsed wood roof and crooked weather vane. It once was the hospital's livestock barn, where workers slaughtered animals for food.

In the kitchen, among the lines of cooking pots affixed to the tile floor, is a 150-gallon vat. All the hospital's steam kettles used to be that big -- they were needed to cook for nearly 3,000 detainees at the facility's peak.

"It was a self-sufficient city," said Rick Pendleton, the hospital's physical plant supervisor.

Lately, however, the grounds have started to look like a 633-acre bull's-eye to state legislators, who need to close a $1.2 billion budget shortfall over the next year. Among their options is to close Crownsville, which has a $34.1 million annual operating budget.

The campus needs work -- asbestos abatement, road repairs and new water heaters -- and legislators have been reluctant to fund repairs at a facility where the newest building is nearly 50 years old.

Today, seven of the buildings are leased to nonprofit tenants and six are vacant. Nearly 1,200 acres have been relinquished. What was a 2,719-person asylum in 1955 has dwindled to a 210-bed hospital.

But Crownsville Chief Operating Officer Sheilah A. Davenport said anyone who describes the facility as run-down hasn't toured it recently. Ask her about the condition of the buildings, and she puts on a slide show featuring yellow and purple pansies, yellow daffodils and freshly painted buildings.

"Sometimes," she said, "you see what you want to see."

Like the state's seven other adult mental health facilities, patients come to Crownsville through the criminal court system or after two doctors determine they are potentially dangerous to themselves or others.

Construction of Crownsville began in 1910. It was initially named the Hospital for the Negro Insane and was built by the people it was intended to hold. The idea was to build away from the rest of the population, with a densely forested campus as an added buffer.

The center was integrated in 1948 and its population peaked in 1955. At the time, the philosophy was to keep patients institutionalized for life. But increasing use of medication and the growth of community mental health programs have shortened the average stay to 161 days.

The facility's most recognizable buildings are the red-brick structures that line Crownsville Road. White trim highlights the windows; some have bars across them. The administration building features pillars reminiscent of Monticello.

"We like to say quaint, with a little bit of Southern charm," Davenport said.

But the campus, which has more than 60 buildings, stretches much farther than passers-by can see from Crownsville Road. It includes two water towers, a water treatment plant, a cemetery, a baseball field, the chapel, a central kitchen, four cottages that house about 30 people each and an abandoned house where the maintenance director lived.

In addition to leasing space to tenants for uses such as a food bank, substance abuse treatment and adolescent mental health services, the hospital uses 19 buildings for its programs and administrative space and five for patients.

The largest of the patient buildings -- the approximately 100-bed Meyer Building -- has the feel of an old elementary school, except it's a lot quieter.

The hallway's tile floors are white with a pink line down the middle. Pale green tiles line the lower section of the wall. There are bulletin boards of artwork -- a drawing of snow falling in front of a nighttime cityscape, across from a rooster with the lettering "King of the Roost" -- as well as framed pictures attached to the painted cinder block walls.

"These old buildings," spokeswoman Jean Smith said, "they last."

The patients live in wings with a central nurse's station. The hospital-style bedrooms hold from one to four -- a 400-square-foot room would hold three.

"Do we need a new building?" Davenport asked. "Absolutely."

Inside the patient wings, taupe tiles rise about 5 feet up on the wall. That's where the walls used to stop. A nurse in a station could see into all the rooms at once. But about 30 years ago, the shoulder-high walls were extended to the ceiling with cinderblock, which has been painted white.

One of these stark wings is empty, leaving Davenport with a challenge typical throughout the complex: how to use surplus institutional space. She will likely make the rooms, now filled with assorted chairs, into group therapy lounges.

"You learn to work with the space," she said. "Our ability to be creative is challenged every single day."

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