“What story belonged to this disaster? What loss, besides mortar and marble and wood-work had followed upon it? Had life been wrecked as well as property? If so, whose? Dreadful question: there was no one here to answer it — not even dumb sign, mute token.”– JANE EYRE, Chapter XXXVI, by Charlotte Bronte
Architecture is one of Connecticut’s few free cultural experiences. A dwindling number can afford to buy their own estates, but anyone can afford to look at one, comment and take pictures.
Unless you lack imagination, it’s impossible not to be intrigued by the architecture at the 770-acre, 16-building Fairfield Hills complex, the remains of a former psychiatric facility based in Newtown, Connecticut. The sprawling site of brownfield Colonial-style houses and bleak halls opened in 1931 and shut down in 1995.
But it has the history, the mystery and revenant associations that attract curious minds.
One of the curious minds belonged to young Matthew Hunt, a Newtown high school student who was fascinated by historical lore. An amateur designer, Hunt was working on a web documentary to catalog his impressions of the site just before his untimely death. He titled his project, “The Lost Asylum.”
At the time, Fairfield Hills was the property of Newtown, which purchased it from the state of Connecticut in 2001.
The town inherited more than brick, mortar and stone: it inherited baggage. Fairfield has tunnels and ghost stories and the same cruel reputation for lobotomies and shock treatments that Connecticut’s other vacant institutions (Norwich State and Connecticut Valley) carry in their millstones.
Hunt must have known that, but respected the kind of property that people his age often don’t. Abandoned “funny farms,” an unfortunate epithet for institutions like Fairfield, are commonly targets for graffiti, vandalism, drinking and drug binges and other teenage mischief.
But Hunt never presented that kind of trouble. He said in a 2003 interview, “We also have a disclaimer on the website that discourages people from trespassing. We absolutely, under no circumstances, condone this kind of behavior.” Hunt’s gentle, compassionate nature was noted many times by his classmates.
Tragically, on Feb. 4, 2004, Hunt was found dead in his bedroom for no apparent cause. He was 18. His friends and family knew of no drug or health problem. An autopsy was performed, but there’s no update in the media record I was able to find. The Newtown police investigated: Detective Sergeant Tvardzik said there was no foul play and was still awaiting the toxicology report on Feb. 12th.
By the time of his death, Hunt had completed audio interviews with numerous former employees of Fairfield Hills – from janitors to shock therapists – with intentions of including them in his web project. He’d visited the deserted buildings with his girlfriend, Sable Stevens, who’d taken pictures.
The pair was devoted to the project, motivated by an interest in historic preservation. In a news report, dated Feb. 12, 2004, William Manfredonia, then the principal of Newtown High School, is quoted as saying that he intended to help Sable complete the project: “‘We can have someone who is very knowledgeable in computers finish it,’ he offered.”
If that really happened, Cinderella failed to find any evidence.
However, you can find the site’s remains on the Wayback Machine. Most of the activity is from 2003, January through October. Here is one snapshot, showing what appears to be the main page. Portions of the image are missing, but the misty black-and-white photo is unmistakably Fairfield Hills, with the title Hunt had chosen. There is a snipe at the right-hand corner that reads: “Public Review Release Date: 5.18.03.” All of the images are similar.
There are no audio files that we could find. And only one other Wayback snapshot, dated Feb. 4, 2005 – the one-year anniversary of Hunt’s death. What appears on this link isn’t another elegiac portrait of a crumbling Fairfield hall but a jolting GoDaddy page full of ads. Disturbing and sad.
Hunt was buried in the Newtown Village Cemetery; there’s a page devoted to him on the cemetery’s site. It includes this note:
“See Matthew’s project at: http://www.fairfieldhills.com/abtMat.html”
Going there brings up one of those awful pages with “Fairfield.com” at the top, leading nowhere quickly. Nothing about Matt. Nothing about his project. But typing the same URL above into the Wayback Machine (here) brings up two of the articles (from Newtown Bee) that Cinderella used to write this post: here and here.
Nothing else remains.