January 12, 2014 01:00AM
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — It did not take long to find evidence that somebody had been inside the former Meriden-Wallingford Hospital building in recent days. A tug on an outside door revealed that it had been unlocked — the same door had been locked two days earlier. Further on the walk around the building, it was clear somebody had gotten inside by scaling a recently placed fence, breaking a window and dropping inside.
Nearly 20 city officials and staff members walked the outside and inside of the former hospital building last week, looking for access points, safety issues and liability concerns. The city recently took control of the property following a foreclosure auction in October in which the city was the only bidder on the property. Although added police attention was given to the 330,000-square-foot, seven-floor building over the years, because it is now in Meriden’s control the city becomes liable for any issues associated with it.
Building and housing inspectors, along with Neighborhood Preservation Specialist Peter Miller, showed off some of the most recent steps taken to keep intruders from getting in, including sealing off a back entrance. It was suggested the recently unlocked door, and others around the property, be welded shut.
While the electricity to the property has not been turned on in years, Police Chief Jeffry Cossette suggested some electricity be used on the site to install security cameras.
“If we are going to be responsible for the building for three or four years,” Cossette told the group, “then it would make sense to put some cameras in key locations ... they could be tied right in to the police station.”
‘It’s a mess’
With the building now in the city’s hands, security is of prime concern. It’s well known, especially among neighbors, that there have been intruders in the vacant building over the years. One step inside the building made it all that more clear.
“It’s a mess,” said Dominick Caruso, the city’s director of development and enforcement. “We definitely need to shore it up, obviously, but it’s pretty eye opening.”
Caruso said he has probably been in the building three times since the hospital closed its doors in the late 1990s. In 1991, the hospital merged with World War II Veterans’ Memorial Hospital on Paddock Avenue and in 1998, MidState Medical Center opened. The opening led to a quick demise for the Cook Avenue facility, which was sold to James E. McGuire, whose attempts to develop it failed. The site was later sold to developer George DiScala, with much the same result, in addition to $1.3 million in back taxes.
Those involved in the walk-through made their way in through a back entrance. The group included City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior, Cossette, Fire Chief Kenneth Morgan, Deputy Fire Chief David Bowen, Public Works Director Robert Bass, Parks and Recreation Director Mark Zebora, city attorney Deborah Moore, inspectors from the building department, and other members of the police and fire departments.
Jim Hamelin, the director of facilities at MidState Medical Center and formerly an employee at Meriden-Wallingford Hospital, led the group through the building. While Hamelin told the members he had only been in the building “maybe once” in the last 10 years, he led the tour as if the entire building was still functioning as a hospital.
The initial reception area was full of debris with ceiling panels missing and significant destruction, a common theme throughout the building.
Group members were encouraged to stay together in order to avoid someone getting lost, as only Hamelin seemed fairly sure of where he was going. There were several jokes made about Hamelin being in trouble if he wandered away from the group or, when the group split over a series of rooms, that no one knew where to go if Hamelin was not readily available.
Vandals leave their mark
The group was led down a hallway past graffiti on the walls bearing the names of the people who had left their mark. There were Satanic references, references to drugs and gangs, slurs and other forms of writing and images.
Like most hallways on the lower levels, it was dark but for each member of the group’s flashlight. The combined lighting was enough to brighten the area so the walls could be read, the overhead piping could be seen and some rooms could be seen into. Most of the windows on the lower levels have been boarded up or partially boarded up.
Making its way along the first floor, only stopping briefly to investigate some rooms and potential entrances, the group headed up to the top level of the building. The doors to many of the elevators remained open and without electricity they were not an option. On one floor, the door to an elevator shaft was partially open.
The roof above the seventh floor was inspected, as were the doors leading to it. Those atop the building were treated to views both north and south of the building and westward toward the Hanging Hills.
Not every level of the building was inspected because not all have easy access points from either the ground or roof. Those that were, however, had been badly damaged. Walls were crumbling in some cases, ceilings were missing or hanging in others. The tallest member of the group, Bass, was often reminded by members of the group to duck his head “up ahead” to avoid banging into a hanging panel, wiring or piping.
In addition to vandals, the building has been exposed to the elements over the years. Some rooms with broken or missing windows had snow in them. Some hallways had ice on the floors. The entire building was cold.
“Dress warm, it’s like 20 degrees colder inside the building than outside,” City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior told a reporter about a week before the actual walk-through.
On Thursday, the temperatures were freezing, though not in the single digits as they had been earlier last week. Still, some members of the group said they wished they had dressed warmer or brought better gloves.
Most rooms had some debris in them, supplies left behind, or in a few cases, large tires placed inside. On the lower levels, people often walked over broken glass, wiring or unidentified debris. Moving at a quick pace throughout the building did not allow people to inspect every square inch of the facility or scattered pieces of rubbish or waste along the floors. Periodically, floor panels would be kicked out or loosened from their positioning.
Along the tour, Hamelin gave the history of different levels or sections of the building. In 1885, Meriden Hospital was established as a community hospital and 15 years later the Bradley Memorial Nurses Residence followed. Over the years, sections were added, including a new wing in 1968.
A handful of floors were inspected before the group investigated the mechanical room below the building, as well as the former morgue and other rooms on the lowest level. There, it was clear mold filled the room.
“You can feel it when you breathe,” Caruso said, pointing to his chest.
A challenge to secure
In the darkened morgue, a table remained in the center of the room where bodies had been prepared. A storage chamber with its door opened was off to the side. The room only fueled discussion that the building would have worked well as the set for a horror film. For those at the back of the group in the long, darkened hallways, people joked they would have not fared well in those movies.
Things brightened up in the foyer, the grand entrance to the building with a high, sky-lit ceiling. It was clear the area had been popular among intruders. In addition to graffiti-ed walls, large potted plants had been found. Kendzior said there had been evidence in past trips that the area had been used by skateboarders.
“Mark,” Kendzior said, turning toward Zebora and referring to the skate park that needs to be relocated, “if you’re looking for a new location ...”
Not all of the foyer was examined, however, with large glass panels hanging from the roof. As with some other parts of the building, there was fear something could collapse at any given moment.
Caruso said department officials are creating lists of what needs to be done in the immediate future at the facility and over the long term to ensure its security. They will meet again in the near future for further discussion.
“Some things will happen right away like pulling the landscaping, bushes out and then shoring up a lot of the doors,” Caruso said. “It’s very difficult to secure that building.”
Now that the building is in the city’s hands and off the tax rolls, efforts are being made to turn the site over to a developer. At least one, Stamford-based JHM Group has expressed interest and met with the city about the property. Though dilapidated, the building’s structure is in place to convert some of the site into housing, medical offices or some type of assisted living facility, which is what has been discussed.
The building, along with multiple properties around downtown will be advertised in a request for qualifications in the coming months, Kendzior has said. The city is looking for interested developers, which could eventually lead to a request for proposals to take over the properties.
The city is already looking to apply for an Environmental Protection Agency grant to assess the environmental issues at the site. A public meeting will be held at City Hall on Jan. 15 at noon regarding the grant application and the grant is expected to be submitted the following week, Economic Development Director Juliet Burdelski has said.