State preserving history of reform school for boys in Meriden before razing dorms

State preserving history of reform school for boys in Meriden before razing dorms

MERIDEN — The State Historic Preservation Office is working over the next few months to preserve the history of the Connecticut School for Boys before two former dormitories are razed.

The buildings are part of what is now the Col. Leo J. Mulcahy Complex on Colony Street, home to the state police forensic lab and other public safety offices.

Officials with the state preservation office have asked that the history and social significance of the two buildings and the Connecticut School for Boys be documented and made available to the public. The final report and pamphlet will be finished within the next few months.

“The proposed scope of work, which includes abatement (partially completed) and demolition of the structures, would constitute an adverse effect to historic resources,” deputy state historic preservation officer Catherine Labadia wrote to Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection officials last July.

Labadia added that the office had no objection to the removal of the dormitories, which state public safety officials say can’t be rehabilitated. The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection is also interested in expanding the forensic lab.

But Labadia strongly recommended the two Colonial revival-style brick structures be documented with photographs, a site plan and narrative text. State historic officials also called for the development of a booklet of photographs and text to detail the significance of the facility, considered one of the earliest reform schools in the country.

A spokesman for the Department of Administrative Services said the agency has hired a professional to write the report and pamphlet.

The Connecticut School for Boys operated on Colony Street from 1855 to 1972 before merging with Long Lane School, the state reform school for girls. The 11-building complex was turned over to the state police and renamed the Col. Leo J. Mulcahy Complex. A forensic lab was built on site in the 1990s.

The site is also home to the State Police Academy Alumni Association Inc. museum, which received approval last summer to construct a building on a half-acre parcel on the eastern side of the property to house vintage vehicles and heavy equipment.

The Connecticut School for Boys complex was situated around a green off Colony Street and was originally designed to prevent youths from entering the adult penal system. By the 1930s, the complex contained a main building, several apartments for staff, staff dining room and kitchen, workshops, school rooms, and the administrative offices. It also had nine cottages, a boys’ kitchen, laundry, bakery, powerhouse, dairy barn, gymnasium and a chapel. Two additional cottages and a greenhouse were completed later.

The idea for the school began in 1850, when public outcry and a legislative committee found that about 80 boys younger than 16 served jail time during a one-year period for theft, according to the Connecticut State Library. The report concluded that at least 200 boys deserved classification as juvenile offenders, but nothing came of it.

“At the start of the 1851 session, Governor Thomas Seymour endorsed the idea of a state reform school in his annual message to the General Assembly,” according to state records. “Having received additional petitions favoring a state reform school, the legislature created a new joint select committee that also endorsed its creation. The committee’s report estimated that the land, buildings and furnishings would cost about $20,000. This time, the Assembly enacted the appropriate legislation.”

Boys who were orphaned, came from dysfunctional homes or had criminal histories were taken into state custody and housed in its dormitories, while administrators lived on site.

Judges could sentence any boy under 16, convicted of any offense punishable by imprisonment to the new state reform school for at least 90 days, according to state records. Convictions that carried life sentences were not eligible for placement.

Boys could be released as an apprentice to any state resident, while those who reached the age of 21 fulfilled their sentence or met the test for reformation and were discharged.

Meriden was selected for its accessibility to the Hartford and New Haven rail lines and central location. The initial site later grew from the 31-acre campus to a farm that stretched to what is now Westfield Meriden mall.

A small knoll on the west side of the campus was designated an “ancient burial ground” in 1986, because it contains the remains of 30 to 40 boys who died at the reform school from childhood diseases or accidents.

A plaque near the knoll reads: “The 30 to 40 boys buried on this site were forgotten children of their time.”

In 1893, the school provided vocational training in addition to moral and academic instruction, giving boys an opportunity to learn masonry, carpentry and framing skills, to the benefit of both the school and themselves. They also produced plays, including “The Mikado,” according to state records.

The state Department of Children and Families will cooperate on the project, Labadia said, but there are restrictions under state law preventing the use of photographs depicting students, recordings and medical records.

In addition to the historical information, the report will also reveal a glimpse into how the state’s practice of dealing with children evolved over time.

“It’s not a static thing, but part of a progression,” Labadia said. “This will look at the development of the building and campus and how it relates to reforming (boys) and bringing them into state custody. To understand the context of how we treat children today, it’s important to have that information.”

The state has a $400,000 demolition budget and has hired AAIS Corp. of West Haven to take down the two buildings.

“This is one of the earliest juvenile reform schools in the country, built in a design that was conducive to reform,” said Marena Wisniewski, state registrar coordinator and environmental reviewer. “It was a well organized complex.”

The original buildings were demolished in the 1920s and the complex rebuilt in the 1930s. The architect was Walter T. Arnold of Hartford, who also designed the site plan.

“The buildings are of no use to DESPP and cannot be maintained,” administrative services department spokesman John McKay said. “The report, with photographic documentation, will be completed in the next month or so.”


Twitter: @Cconnbiz

State Reform School - 1890
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