The Fall of an Icon, the End of an Era

Another historic occasion came to pass nearly unnoticed last week when the John E. Fogarty Hospital in Exeter, Rhode Island, finally met its destiny with the wrecking ball, so bringing an end to an era that is as storied as the building was iconic.

The Ladd School, Fogarty Building, c.a. 1970–80

Built in 1962, the hospital was named for the U.S. Congressman from Rhode Island, John Fogarty, whose 27-year tenure has been lauded most for its unprecedented contributions toward the the increased awareness and improvement of services for “mentally retarded” citizens. The first and only facility of its kind, the hospital stood for more than a half century on the grounds of the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center; the state’s historic and now defunct institution for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Designed by the architects of Donald J. Prout and Associates, the building — made of reinforced concrete slabs and paneled in bright orange and ivory porcelain — was unlike any other, and conspicuously out of place, in the region. Built at a cost of $1.2 million, funded mostly by a bond issue approved by R.I. voters, at a height of five stories — totaling 74 feet — it was said to be the tallest building in Washington County. Described as “the hospital of tomorrow,” its circular design was claimed to result in “saving 37 per cent in footsteps for the nurses, doctors, and other attendants,” while every room faced a “splendid view of the surrounding countryside.”

The Fogarty Hospital may be well remembered today by former Ladd Center staff members and residents as the state’s premiere medical facility dedicated specifically to treating people with developmental disabilities. Since being abandoned more than two decades ago, younger generations of locals will likely remember it better as a destination for ghost hunters, photographers and “urban explorers.”

But perhaps it is best recognized as the epicenter of a social revolution that continues on to this day.

While under inspection by authorities in September, 1977, a confidential report revealing unsanitary and life-threatening conditions at the hospital’s dental clinic was leaked to the press by social activists. In its wake, the clinic was immediately shut down, and the details were published — almost as quickly — on the front page of the Providence Evening Bulletin in a exposé by staff writer Peter Perl.

A series of investigative reports by Perl, and fellow journalists Bruce DeSilva and Thomas Walsh, ensued over the next several months, blowing the doors open on what increasingly appeared to be a long history of medical malpractice and human rights violations perpetrated at the Ladd Center. By the year’s end, Dr. Ladd’s successor, Superintendent John Smith, was fired from his post by R.I. Governor J. Joseph Garrahy, and a class action lawsuit was filed against the state on behalf of all the institution’s residents. The suit was resolved in the early 1980s with two subsequent Federal court orders for the institution to diminish its role as a custodial care facility and reduce its population by significant numbers. In 1986, R.I. Governor Edward DiPrete announced a plan to close the Ladd Center; and in 1993, after years of gradual downsizing, the last of its residents were finally moved to alternative facilities and group homes in the community, where many still reside.

The property itself, and its derelict buildings — including Fogarty Hospital — had remained abandoned until recently.

Last summer, four of the Ladd Center’s original buildings — some of them close to a century old — were razed. Unlike on that occasion, however, the demolition of the John E. Fogarty Hospital should not come as a surprise, nor should it be met with with a great sense of loss. For every person who will lament the wrecking of these historic buildings, there is surely another who will be glad to see the Ladd Center vanish at last. And while future generations will unfortunately be without such monumental reminders of our state’s history, and the origin of our system of care for people with disabilities, we may nevertheless rest assured that its legacy will thrive in spirit, through the memories, legends and literature born from its prolific, if troubling, past.

History is not made of brick and mortar, after all, and will not be so easily forgotten.

[originally published August 1, 2014]

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