Mass Mental new buildings open first

November 11, 2011
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Eight years, almost to the day, after the Massachusetts Mental Health Center closed the doors at its Fenwood Road site, the center opened two new buildings near the site Nov. 7.

Construction of the two new buildings—at 20 Vining St and 75 Fenwood Road—was funded by Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) as part of a complex development plan for the site.  That plan also includes the eventual construction of two about 15-story towers on the former central Mass Mental site between Vining, Fenwood and the Riverway: One for BWH facilities and one a Roxbury Tenants of Harvard mixed-income residential tower.

“I was there for a year, right where that parking lot is,” Michael Barker, a former Mass Mental patient, told the Gazette at an open house for the new facilities Nov. 2. Barker was pointing out the window of one of Mass Mental’s new buildings at 20 Vining St., across the street to the lot that used to house Mass Mental’s now-leveled sprawling main facility.

Barker was one of a number of current and former Mass Mental patients, joined by community members and Longwood Medical Area workers, who toured the facilities during the all-day open house.

The three-story 20 Vining St. building houses Mass Mental’s “Partial Hospital” on its first floor and the temporary residential Fenwood Inn program on its second and third.

The six-story building at 75 Fenwood Road—near the corner of Binney Street and known as the Binney Street building—hosts Mass Mental’s administrative offices and outpatient services.

Partial hospitals are care facilities that provide patients with care similar to care they would receive at traditional mental hospitals, but the patients live independently off-site.

The Fenwood Inn is a short-term residential program for patients seeking support from Mass Mental or other mental health services, Partial Hospital Director Mathew Robinson told the Gazette.

Mass Mental has not run a traditional inpatient program with locked wards for about 25 years, Robinson told the Gazette. Mass Mental patients are all referred by the state Department of Mental Health, Robinson said. “It is usually the last stopgap for people who have run through traditional services,” he said.

The size of the bathrooms and the bedrooms were much commented on by the group the Gazette toured the facility with. Barker told the Gazette that when he had stayed at Mass Mental, all of the rooms had bunk beds. “Everyone wanted the bottom bunk” and arguments used to break out when top bunk residents would step on their bunkmates’ mattresses.

Mass Mental has been operating out of a ward at the Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain’s Franklin Park for the last eight years, and the situation over there was even tighter, Murphy said on the tour. There were three bunk beds in each room. But the bunks are now a thing of the past. “Going from that to a single or a double [room] is going to be nice,” she said.

Other features of the new inn and partial hospital include a computer lab, and a kitchen for occupational therapy training.

The new buildings also retain features of the old Mass Mental. A fireplace from the old building is preserved in the 20 Vining St. building’s community room and the library at the Binney Street Building features ornamental bookshelves salvaged from the old building.

Outpatient Clinician Nora Otero told the Gazette that Mass Mental staffers are hoping to restart an old tradition at the site—the LMA “grand rounds.” That weekly event is essentially a speakers series where LMA professionals share the innovative work they are doing.

“Mass Mental always hosted it,” Otero said, and negotiations are going on to bring it back from another LMA institution that has been hosting it in Mass Mental’s absence.

Sal Giarratani, a longtime security guard at Mass Mental, was the last guard on-duty when it closed in 2003, and asked to work the day of the open house, told the Gazette. He said the new Binney Street building took the place of a small park that Mass Mental workers knew as “the beach,” where they would take lunch and sometimes sunbathe.

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