Two buildings on the campus of Bangor's Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center have been identified as beyond repair. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Two buildings on the campus of Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor have fallen so deeply into disrepair that they should be demolished, according to a consultant the state hired to examine the condition of facilities on the sprawling campus off State Street.

That two buildings on the storied campus are in such a condition — full of mold and other hazardous materials, according to the facilities assessment — shows how much of the psychiatric center property is currently unused, more than 120 years after it opened to alleviate overcrowding at the state’s original psychiatric hospital in Augusta.

The state of those two buildings — Pooler Pavilion and Hedin Hall — came to light because Bangor city officials recently raised the idea of using some of the center’s vacant space as a warming center for the region’s growing unhoused population. But state officials found much of the unused space is either unsafe to serve as a warming center or in need of costly repairs.

Officials from the city, Penobscot County and the state have looked at portions of the grounds and buildings on the Dorothea Dix campus over the years for other uses, aside from the original purpose of housing Maine residents with mental illness.

The Eastern Maine Insane Hospital, now known as the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, pictured on the front of a postcard circa 1910. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Shaw

At one point, a now-defunct building on the campus was going to house veterans, and Penobscot County officials looked to expand the county jail onto the grounds, according to Bangor code enforcement office records. Today, the Department of Corrections houses people on probation transitioning from life behind bars back into society, and a handful of state agencies have set up on the center’s campus.

The two buildings recommended for demolition aren’t within the portion of the Dorothea Dix campus considered historically significant, according to a state application from 1987 to include the psychiatric center on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dorothea Dix started as the Eastern Maine Insane Hospital — sometimes referred to as the Eastern Maine Insane Asylum — when its doors opened in 1901, according to that application.

Local historian Richard Shaw also remembers when the facility was called the Bangor State Hospital and then the Bangor Mental Health Institute.

“It is a part of Bangor’s history,” he said. “I think it was just Augusta and Bangor that had the two big psychiatric hospitals.”

The center’s history is rooted in a mental health crisis the state faced in the mid-1800s. In 1830, then-Gov. Jonathan Hunton proposed a mental health facility in the state that 10 years later opened as the Maine Insane Hospital along the Kennebec River in Augusta.

That facility, later known as the Augusta Mental Health Institute, quickly filled and was overcrowded by 1873. However, it would be another 30 years before the facility that is today Dorothea Dix would be open in Bangor.

The original building that is the centerpiece of Dorothea Dix was designed by Portland architect John Calvin Stevens, who designed buildings throughout Maine, according to Michael Goebel-Bain from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

Two buildings at Bangor’s Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, Hedin Hall (shown) and  Pooler Pavilion, have been identified as beyond repair. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The main building is really a series of buildings connected into one large structure. They center around an administrative building with a granite block with the words “Bangor State Hospital” chiseled into it that sits just above the arched entrance. The other two buildings surround the central administrative unit like wings.

“These were fortresses in a way to instill a sense of confidence to tell the community, I believe, that the people inside probably weren’t going anywhere if they ever had any concerns about them escaping,” Shaw said. “It was called an asylum — it was part treatment, and it was almost like a penal colony frankly, by today’s standards.”

The buildings are all three-and-a-half-story brick structures that rest on raised rubble stone foundations and have largely gone unchanged foundationally.

In 1987, when state officials applied for the center to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, they created a boundary around the main building to denote the historically significant portions of the property, Goebel-Bain said.

The two buildings recommended for demolition don’t fall within that boundary, but that doesn’t mean the buildings’ historical significance can’t be reconsidered, he said.

“We might revise that boundary and say, ‘you know this should be included,’ or that ‘this is significant as well,’ after we kind of look at how it connects with the larger complex and what it reflects,” he said.

While it remains unclear why Bangor was chosen for the state’s second psychiatric hospital, Shaw said he can see why its current location would have been perfect at the time.

Two buildings at Bangor’s Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, Pooler Pavilion (shown on right) and Hedin Hall, have been identified as beyond repair. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

At the time that part of Bangor was still largely undeveloped. The hill that the center sits on was called “Hepatica Hill,” named for a group of wildflowers, Shaw said. While the grove of birch and pine trees that line the property now keep the center cloistered from busy State Street below, when the center was first constructed it likely had a view of the Penobscot River, he said.

“They would build these almost always in these tranquil settings, and that was really out in the country back in the 1890s,” Shaw said. “I think they chose the location quite carefully.”

Shaw said he recalls when State Street was almost synonymous with the hospital, which reflects its significance in Bangor history.

“It was like a separate little community within the city, but it was sort of off-limits — even as a kid I remember back to the ’50s, it was not just a place that you wandered into,” Shaw said. “If you’re going to State Street, it was like code for the place you didn’t want to put Grandma.”

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...