Abandoned, Accessible, and Awesome: Metropolitan State Hospital and Metfern Cemetery

September 28, 2013 — So, yeah, I’ll go so far as to say that ruins are the single coolest thing about the human race. We create amazing structures and then let them rot and go to pot without a thought. Like painting a masterpiece and flinging it into the fire, it’s just style points. After all, the statue of Ozymandias didn’t get a poem. Its ruins did.

And at no time of year is our tendency to ruin more appreciated than now, when a spooky old abandoned building is a perfect place to visit…especially one that comes with its own graveyard.

Metropolitan State Hospital opened in 1930, just two days shy of Halloween, in Waltham, Massachusetts. The 20-building, 400-acre campus was designed to care for the state’s ill and ill-starred, and it had more than a thousand of them. Over the course of the next six decades, it seems to have done its job. I mean, it was a sad place by definition, but I didn’t find any of the terrible stories of abuse and neglect you too often find in antique institutions like these. This former employee has a few interesting stories, though.

The one infamous tale that comes out of the hospital is the murder of a patient named Anne Marie Davee in 1978 by another patient named Melvin Wilson. He killed her with a hatchet, dismembered her, and then buried her in three spots on the hospital grounds.

He was eventually caught…he had seven of her teeth on him, after all, and was moved to the more secure Bridgewater State Hospital before being indicted for murder.

The whole place closed down in 1992 for the usual budget reasons, and within two decades most of the structures and either been torn down and the land resown with apartments (by Avalon, the same company that condo’d Danvers State Insane Asylum) or refurbished for other uses. Except for one…the administration building. I’m not sure why I used ellipses to introduce it.

Getting to the building was simple. We drove right up to it, parked right beside it.

The building is located on Metropolitan Parkway South and is pretty hard to miss. The red brick edifice and its glaring, flaking white portico looms more than two stories above a relatively blank area, a strange combination of out in the middle of nowhere and right in the middle of everything. No buildings are directly around it, but there is an entire apartment complex almost within jumping distance. One side is bordered by forest and a rutted asphalt street encircles the building, so you can easily see it from all sides.

The exterior lives up to everything you expect from an abandoned building. The windows are boarded and bricked up, the walls are overgrown with clinging plants, the lawn is hairy with tall weeds, a signed tacked to one wall frantically warns about asbestos and cancer. Surprisingly and refreshingly, there was only a minimum amount of graffiti, just a few simple scrawlings on the front door area, including the word “Welcome” on the doorstep.

The building still bears its name, the Dr. William F. McLaughlin building (named after a WWII flight surgeon who became a hospital administrator there) high up on the roof of the portico, just under the white-washed Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with its Native American figure beneath a bodiless arm brandishing a sword in his direction and a Latin motto about peace by that same weapon surrounding it all.

At the time that I visited, I didn’t know about the Davee murder, but thinking back, the place looked like it could have been absolutely paved with the shallow graves of severed body parts.

The site has a great build up, but obviously, there isn’t much for us law-abiding to do there. We walked up the front steps. Circled the building. Tried a few doors (all locked). Took a few pics. Left.

And then, a few weeks later, we returned.

Upon returning home I would learn not just about the Davee murder, but that Metropolitan State Hospital had its own cemetery, a cemetery that was still present on the grounds.

I found its location on Google Maps, and used the GPS coordinates to try to drive directly there. Unfortunately, that plan ended at a metal gate off Trapelo Road flourishing a “No Trespassing. Police Take Notice” sign. Probably just as well. Not sure my car could’ve handled what remained of the road on the far side of the gate.

After almost giving up, I returned to the Dr. William F. McLaughlin building and did some quick Internet searching on the phone. The path to the cemetery seemed to be right at the entrance to the Avalon apartments. But it was going to take some hiking.

Almost immediately after we pulled into the apartments on Metropolitan Parkway North, we saw a metal gate on the left, the kind meant to stop vehicles but not people, with a post nearby that bore some friendly-looking arrows on it.

After parking and walking to it, we saw a small sign tacked to a tree that designated it as part of the Western Greenway Trail. We started down the trail, not sure how far or really if it was going to take us to the cemetery.

Along the way, it became extremely obvious that this dirt trail through a forest was actually reclaimed land. Every so often a manhole/sewerhole (funniest synonyms of all time) was right in the middle of the trail, exactly where access to underground plumbing shouldn’t be.

The trail forked a couple of times, but we stayed on the main part and used my phone to make sure we were heading in the right direction. After half a mile of hiking (or, more accurately, walking), we arrived at a long, low rock wall paralleling the path. It was the outer boundary of the hospital cemetery.

A sign about halfway down the wall named the place Metfern Cemetery. According to the sign, the graveyard was used between 1947 and 1979 by both the state hospital and the Fernald School, a 165-year-old, still-active-but-disintegrating school for those with development disabilities.

Without the sign, the graveyard was hardly noticeable as such. The grass was a couple feet tall, and you had to stub your toe to find the few marked graves scattered around the enclosure. Most of them were just small stone loafs with letters on them. I did find one nicer stone with an actual, intelligible inscription on it, for a John Vensky (1936-1972).

The most prominent items in the cemetery were the large tree growing in the middle and a small altar with a bust of Jesus on it. I also found some shallow steps leading up the slight incline of the cemetery.

After the graveyard, we pushed ahead a bit to see what else was there among the hiking trails. Besides an old water tower, I didn’t see anything really. At one point the Gaebler Children’s Center, a psychiatric institution for kids, decayed grandiosely thereabouts, but today it’s just a stub of pavement leading to open field.

At some point, they’ll tear down the administration building or repurpose it or fence it off from easy access, but the cemetery seems like it’ll always be there to see. I’ve marked the exact location of both on the OTIS Map of New England Oddities. Not really to be helpful, but just because I couldn’t think of an ending for this post.