Fernald State School and Hospital Recordation Project

Fernald State School and Hospital Recordation Project

The vacant and deteriorating Walter E. Fernald State School is a massive institutional complex in Waltham, Massachusetts. Founded in South Boston in 1848 as the Massachusetts School for Idiotic & Feeble-Minded Youth, it was the first school for intellectually and developmentally disabled children in the United States. In 1890, it opened a site in Waltham under the direction of Dr. Walter E. Fernald, and grew to become a “total” institution, in which thousands of disabled people lived and died. In the decades before it closed, it was a major site in the fight for deinstitutionalization, disability civil rights, and the beginnings of the self-advocacy movement.

The Fernald School's history is filled with groundbreaking discoveries and treatments that helped shaped therapeutic, educational, and medical practices all over the world. These advances were tarnished by horrific human rights abuses, including eugenics-based practices, sexual abuse, and Cold War-era radiation experiments. Running through its history is the loneliness of generations of disabled people excluded from a world that would not accept them and their families.

This website presents a years-long documentation of the center in the hope of raising awareness of its legacy, amplifying the need to hear the stories of those who lived and died here, and offering creative interpretations of the institution's remnants to stimulate further reflection and contemplation. Originally commissioned by the City of Waltham to photographically document the buildings, the recordation team has expanded this project into a comprehensive website to shed light on a place hidden from the public view.

Please note that the site is still very much in-progress and essential components such as a comprehensive historical writeup, as well as voices from past patients and employees, are currently being collected and prepared.

Recordation Team: Bryan Parcival, Tom Kirsch, Julia Solis

Special Thanks: Alex Green, Christopher Beauchamp, George Darcy