Mark Majeski's Camera
Saves Old Main for the Ages
By Edward Shanahan
Judging by his recent talk at Forbes Library, Mark Majeski of Haydenville is a man of few words. But his photographs speak volumes and luckily they now reside in the library’s permanent collection.
In masterful understatement, Majeski described for an audience drawn by their interest in the history of Northampton State Hospital how he came to take pictures of the interior of the hospital’s principal building before it was leveled in the last year to make way for new commercial and residential development.
He used to walk his dog on property atop Hospital Hill, Majeski said, and about five years ago, wondering what the Old Main building had been used for, he found his way into the decaying structure. Armed with a camera and three rolls of film, he spent much of one day and shorter periods of time on other occasions to explore the labyrinthine three floors, basement, sub-basement and tunnels of the cavernous, historic, and decidedly scary complex.
Altogether he produced 87 images of what he and his camera found as he wandered unaccompanied through the gloomy spaces with peeling paint, leftover furniture still standing, graffiti decorated walls, pools of water, and the looming presence of bad memories and hopeful prospects, in fact, the residue of society’s confused efforts over a century and half to provide decent treatment for those who suffered from mental illness.
Mike Kirby speaks about Old Main
Majeski said that once any vestiges of Old Main and allied structures on the sprawling hospital property were wiped out, he decided within the last year that his photos might have value as part of the historical record of the 150- year-old state mental facility.
“So I walked into the library and said here are my pictures.” Majeski said, concluding his two-minute talk.
Also on hand for what was a kind of tribute to the failed effort to save the Old Main building were Mike Kirby, a local activist involved in an attempt to prevent the destruction of Old Main, and author of “Back Row, Back Ward,” a mini-book about the Save Old Main effort.
He said “it is hard to be upbeat when you’re talking about the State Hospital. All of us in love with the buildings are horrified at its history.”
In his talk, Kirby touched on what he called the “high points and the low points” of the hospital, which was opened in 1856 and was regarded originally as “progressive” in nature under its first director Pliny Earle in its treatment of the mentally ill.
Over many decades, the hospital as it continued to expand, became a source of division in the Northampton community, Kirby said. Some city residents felt a sense of shame about the hospital and did not want to talk about it.
Then as the hospital was shut down, there was a conflict about how the property should be developed, and whether the centerpiece building, Old Main, should be saved and dedicated as a museum, Kirby said.
In the end, state officials who “don’t like history,” he said, along with local interests, decided to approve widespread demolition and move forward with the redevelopment of what has come to be named Village Hill rather than Hospital Hill, as it was always called.
A slide show of all of the Majeski photos was then shown, and members of the small audience appeared deeply moved by the images as well as relieved that a photographic record of the main building and its implied uses will survive even if Old Main did not.
According to Faith Kaufmann, information services librarian and head of the Arts & Music Department, the prints and digital scans will become part of the permanent local history collection at Forbes. “We are really grateful to Mark for documenting this historic building and making his photographs available to be preserved for the future.”
Meanwhile, some of the photos are now on display online at
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