Brattleboro Retreat Tower: Historic Masonry

Words: Cass Stern

Words: Cassandra Stern
Photos: Patti Gravel 

Picture this: Rolling hills of wild emerald grass and reaching pines, calm blue waters stretching out toward the horizon, and a commanding brick building with more history than meets the eye. This magnificent, almost ethereal view is very real. Standing on a 600-acre lot on Vermont’s meadows, the Brattleboro Retreat was a pioneer not only in healthcare, it provided in the late 19th century but in its architectural design as well. 

History of Brattleboro Retreat

Founded in 1834 as the Vermont Asylum for the Insane, back when that type of language was the norm, the Brattleboro Retreat faces an inlet of the West River featuring a distinctive back-lit clock tower atop Lawton Hall’s rotunda. This structure created a safe space for patients to enjoy the scenery of Vermont’s famous grassy plains and lush forest. The Retreat Tower stands with elegant authority on the main campus, a castle-like building reminiscent of the York Retreat in northeast England. In 1984, the retreat was named on the National Register for Historic Places, and the history flows through this place like the azure water in the campus-side river.

Notably, the Main and Center Buildings are the focal points of the campus. Spread out like the wings of a condor, the Main Building’s annexes stretch east to west across the block. The Center Building’s gable-front facade reaches five bays wide, featuring sandstone trim, stone steps, and granite posts. A classic stained-glass transom decorates the structure’s eldritch face, bringing light and color to an otherwise eerie place. Grandiose windows divide the pavilion’s upper stories alongside cornices with brick dentils, a traditional Greek style of block ornaments, giving the roof a touch of distinguished elegance.

Built by Captain Merchant Toby of Massachusetts in 1838, the Center Building’s interior mirrors the absolute and classical style found on the exterior. Majesty pours from the structure as a steep roof, and large dormers reach up to the heavens from the consecrated ground below. Dark stained balustrades and Italianate posts elongate the space, making room for the fresh forest air to sweep in through the oversized windows. After a fire in 1862, most of this building was rebuilt with the same architectural styles in mind. 

Brattleboro Retreat Tower 

Many a ghost story has been told about Brattleboro. However, there is more light than dark haunting this antique building. It is renowned for doctors’ respectful treatment of patients dating back to when patients were often neglected in psychiatric hospitals. In 1887, patients worked to construct the campus’s acclaimed tower as a medically sanctioned form of therapeutic manual labor. Unfortunately, this scenic overlook brings a tinge of darkness to Brattleboro’s fame, as this tower became the hub for patient suicides. 

The ground reeks of eerie energy emanating from the retreat’s cemetery on the grounds below this serene vista. In the shadow of Brattleboro’s famous tower, a nineteenth-century graveyard covers the silky grass meadows with dilapidated headstones, some unforgettably marked “Unknown.” Interestingly, the count of deaths on the premises outnumbers the gravestones, signaling that this facility participated in the age-old practice of chipping off an older deceased person’s name, replacing it with a new one, and doubling up on residents in the plot, a timely ritual found in most cemeteries of the time in New England. Even Salem, Massachusetts, is known for this practice in their witch graveyards, including the infamous Burying Point Cemetery. 

Tower Construction & Materials 

The Retreat Tower was constructed using different sizes of dark-colored granite boulders supplements with large pieces of white quartz, which are delicately arranged to form a visually appealing design (of sorts). In contrast, carefully cut fine white granite blocks were used to construct the tower’s cap teeth and outline the iron door frame. This bright material is visible even from a considerable distance, and the result is a stunning effect even to this day. 

According to the Friends of Brattleboro Retreat Tower, an online group dedicated to the preservation of this structure and its history, “the Gothic-style, 65-foot Tower was built from ledge harvested just below the site and from the Retreat Quarry on West Dummerston Rd.” Additional materials were also locally sourced, and the Retreat Tower itself is capped with “granite quoins quarried from J.E. Lyons on Black Mt. Rd.” A circular brick and slate stairway inside were also constructed with local materials and labor. 

An Important Piece of History 

Despite its supernatural background, Brattleboro Retreat offers a breathtaking view of America’s historical architecture. The brick structures across the campus feature styles ranging from Colonial Revival to Italianate to Federal. The institution’s heart lies on Linden Street, where a group of nine buildings overlooking the Wantastiquet Mountain of nearby New Hampshire. In 1837, just three years after the retreat’s conception, construction of the Main Building began. Slate-roofing and vermillion brick complement the Greek and Colonial Revival styles, giving the structure a commanding yet elegant facade. Significantly, the New England college-campus ambiance cements Brattleboro as an exceptional architectural location, bringing multiple construction styles together into a one-of-a-kind patchwork of artistry. 

The bricklaying patterns found on the main buildings are as unusual as they are beautiful. Nine stretchers followed by a single course of three stretchers line the first story, and common bonds line the second. A geometric lunette tops the building, refracting the natural light and opening the interior space. Tripled ten-by-ten windows line the center bay, and three chimneys reach toward the endless New England sky. 

The architectural techniques and materials used throughout the retreat itself, but notably the Brattleboro Retreat Tower represents this region in this historical period. The unique, eye-catching designs and haunting history serve as a lasting reminder of the past, of both how far we’ve come when it comes to treating mental illness and how far we have to go. It is of dire importance that places like the Brattleboro Retreat Tower be preserved so future generations can continue to both learn and appreciate the rich history this structure has to offer. 

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