The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 6, 2004


Valleyhead: 50 years of healing on South Street

Valleyhead Hospital. The name is vaguely familiar to longtime Carlisleans, yet its half-century history is sketchy and, most would say, shrouded in mystery. Before Valleyhead Hospital slips into obscurity, it deserves demystification in order to take its rightful place in Carlisle history.

From 1929 to 1978, Valleyhead Hospital, an exclusive psychiatric hospital, was located at 84 South Street, where Assurance Technology is now. In 1928 Dr. Lawrence Lunt, a psychiatrist and prominent Carlisle resident who served for many years on the Planning Board, bought the 100-acre Wilson Stock Farm on South Street with a plan to open a private sanitarium for patients with acute depression, schizophrenia, "adolescent maladjustment" and alcohol and drug addiction. With architect William Kussin of Concord, Dr. Lunt converted the huge barn into the main part of the hospital. He also renovated the stately "Brickend house" at 68 South Street, which dates from 1781, and it became his family residence. His office was in the "Jock House," said to be the oldest house in Carlisle. (This small gabled cottage was built in 1654 and named after Jonathan Heald, nicknamed "Jock." It stood between the main building and the Brickend until the late 1970s when it was moved across South Street and renovated.)

Dr. Lunt christened his country estate "Valleyhead," the story goes, because at that time a beautiful valley stretched all the way to Concord and the Lunt property was at its head. Valleyhead opened in September 1929 and operated as a private sanitarium until 1945 or 1946 when Dr. Lunt sold it to Dr. Thomas Diab of Wellesley. He in turn soon sold it to Maude DeCaro, and in 1947, S & G Realty Company leased the property.

Patients from wealthy families

A Valleyhead Hospital brochure of 1950 describes "the atmosphere, charm and graciousness of the beautiful country estate from which [the hospital] grew, retaining the best in old New England quiet, taste and dignity." The brochure reads more like a promotion for an upscale summer camp than a psychiatric hospital: weekly parties and movies, a clay tennis court, a croquet field, and elegant meals including fresh seafood from Boston's Fish Pier. "In the summer time we have frequent outdoor weenie roasts followed by softball games." These perks, and many more, were an integral part of Valleyhead's therapy program.

Brickend House at 68 South Street, circa 1950. (Courtesy Carlisle Historical Society)

It was here that wealthy families sent their troubled sons and daughters to heal in the midst of rural, isolated Carlisle, accessible "from Boston through facilities in Concord, four miles away." Valleyhead's seclusion was important to patients and their families to whom privacy meant everything. There was one small, discreet, wooden sign at the Concord Street end of South Street that read "Valleyhead,"
Interior courtyard which connects the main building with the Brickend House. (courtesy of the Carlisle Historical Society)

Patients, mostly from Massachusetts, were accepted by referral from their doctors at a cost of approximately $100 a daynot a small sum in the early decadesbut later insurance coverage was available for 90 days or up to $15,000. Accommodations ranged from private bedrooms and double rooms to a dormitory for a dozen people. Long-term care was available for senile men and women the men were housed in the dormitory and the women in the Brickend house. There was a "closed facility" for patients who needed to be isolated for periods of time, and an out-patient department provided short-term psychiatric care to adults and children.

Valleyhead cared for 40 to 70 patients and employed 90 full- or part-time staff, many from Carlisle, Chelmsford and Lowell. Sarah Andreassen, Carlisle's longtime Town Clerk and Accountant, worked at Valleyhead in the fifties while she was a student at Concord-Carlisle High School. Interviewed before her death last year, Sarah said, "I was a waitress, and then I graduated to being the doorkeeper." Some Carlisleans worked in maintenance, in the kitchen, dining room and laundry. "Valleyhead had a huge laundry there. It was all done on site," Sarah recalled, "with large machines that ironed the sheets. Mrs. Belanger and Mrs. Adrian worked in the laundry. Some women worked as waitresses: Mrs. Millie Davis was one." Evelyn Duren, known as an excellent cook, worked in Valleyhead's kitchen in the early fifties.

Reginald Elston of Tyngsboro worked in maintenance at Valleyhead for fourteen years, and his wife Yoma worked in the dining room. "I repaired the buildings, cleaned the pool, took care of the lawn," said Elston in a phone interview. "The maintenance department had one supervisor, two full-time maintenance men and part-time help in the summer." After Valleyhead closed, Elston stayed on to work for Assurance Technology until his recent retirement.

"A lovely place"

"It was a lovely, lovely place," said Sarah, whose great-grandfather Captain Horace Waldo Wilson owned the Wilson Stock Farm. "They converted the barn into a lovely building; the staircase wound around and around. There was a grand piano, lots of nice, plushy, comfortable sofas and chairs. Then on the other side, toward the Brickend, that whole side was recreational — pool tables, exercise equipment, dancing. They had occupational therapists as well as physical therapists. There was a beauty parlor right there, there was a large swimming pool across the street, tennis courts, and the grounds were beautiful."

Sarah met her husband at Valleyhead. Carl Andreassen, just home from the service in the fifties, worked there part-time for three years, "from 3:00 to 11 :00 p.m.," he said recently, "while I was going to school." He was a caretaker for the elderly male patients who lived in the dormitory upstairs in the main building, but he particularly remembers one younger patient. "There was a young fellow with mental problems. Before he came to Valleyhead, he took jujitsu lessons to help him control his 'spells,' I suppose. Late one night, after I checked the elderly gentlemen, I looked in on the isolation room where they kept people who were violent. I looked through the small window and everything was very dark. Then that young fellow let out a loud karate yell, and I ran out of there fast!"

With a smile, Sarah remembered one particular night: "I would prepare a bedtime snack for the patients before I left. I was with this lady. She was talking to a flower in the wallpaper and getting very upset because this person she thought it was had not paid the rent. So I was trying to talk to her talking to the flower, and Carl comes down the stairs. Oh, boy, I thought, there go my chances! He must think I turned into one of the patients!" But as everyone in Carlisle knows, Sarah and Carl Andreassen were married and lived on Cross Street, near Valleyhead, until her death from cancer on August 15, 2003.

Patients and treatments

Sarah Andreassen denied that Valleyhead was mysterious. "Everyone around here knew what Valleyhead was, but they were afraid of it in those days," she said. "It had a stigma to it, and these famous people [the patients] didn't want anybody to know that they had problems. Some were alcoholics, some were mentally ill, but there was definitely a stigma to it."

Women patients outnumbered men, two to one. Some were famous, most were not, but confirmation of the "rich and famous" rumored to have been at Valleyhead is impossible since patient records were then, as now, confidential. Whereas today each dramatic attempt at rehab by superstars like Whitney Houston is breathlessly chronicled in the media, years ago high-profile people valued Valleyhead for its privacy and its reputation for healing. Among those rumored to have been Valleyhead patients were Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Gleason, Judy Garland, Art Carney, Frank Fontaine, the son of H.L. Hunt (at one time the "richest man in America"), the president of Tufts University, and the daughter of the founder of Yankee Magazine.

Poet Sylvia Plath, who famously suffered all her short life from mental illness, described her "rather brief and traumatic experience of badly given shock treatments" at Valleyhead to a friend: "Pretty soon the only doubt in my mind was the precise time and method of committing suicide." In his book about McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital, Alex Beam wrote: "Plath had suffered through several painful and impersonal shock sessions at the hands of Dr. Peter Thornton and then Kenneth Tillotson at Valleyhead Hospital. She had received no anesthesia for the treatments and after being semi-electrocuted she had been wheeled into an empty recovery room to cope with her trauma."

Electroshock treatment at Valleyhead

Dr. Michael Shea, currently a psychiatrist in Haverill, was a volunteer at Valleyhead from 1968 to 1975. He lived on South Street and set up his practice in Concord. He is the brother of Dr. Paula Hallett, who was the acting superintendent of the hospital when it closed in 1978. During Valleyhead's entire existence, electroshock treatment, or ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) was the most effective therapy for profound mental illness. In a recent interview, Dr. Shea explained that, "Treatments [at Valleyhead] were given about three times a week for about a month, or 9 to 12 treatments altogether." Improvement often began after a week but the treatment was continued to prevent a relapse of the depression. "People would suffer a temporary loss of memory an hour after the treatment," said Dr. Shea, but more serious and lengthy memory loss is widely reported in the literature.

In a procedure that seems barbaric, patients were jolted with an electrical current that induced a grand-mal seizure. Valleyhead Hospital's reliance on ECT confirms its acceptance within the psychiatric community despite a persistently negative attitude by the public toward the therapy. This was undoubtedly aggravated by disturbing scenes in the 1975 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Although Valleyhead's treatment programs were controversial, Dr. Shea emphasized that patients did get better and most were able to return to productive lives, as they still do today under improved conditions.

Surely the calming meadows and woodlands of Carlisle contributed to restoring Valleyhead's patients to health.

ECT advances

Today, significant advances have reduced the trauma of ECT. Electrodes are placed only on the right side of the patient's head, protecting the left side of the brain that controls language and auditory memory, and shorter jolts of electricity are used instead of a steady stream. Short-term anesthesia and muscle relaxants calm the patient and reduce serious side effects.

Kitty Dukakis, the wife of former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, is a strong proponent of electroshock therapy. A Boston Globe article of July 24, 2003, reported that she receives treatments about once every eight months and has had a "wonderful" response since starting them two years ago as part of her continuing struggle with depression. Dr. Shea agreed: "ECT is the best anti-depressant medication there is. Medication is tolerable, but it's too slow-acting," especially when the patient is suicidal or the depression too severe to wait for drugs to work.

In addition to its reputation for successfully treating depression and other psychiatric conditions, Valleyhead was especially noted for its treatment of alcoholism. According to the Valleyhead brochure, therapy consisted of "immediate withdrawal, in conjunction with ambulatory insulin and vitamins, for the relief of symptoms and rehabilitation of the body," coupled with psychotherapy. Dr. Shea told of a well-known shelter for alcoholics in Acton operated by "Dropkick" Murphy, a Boston professional wrestler in the fifties. "He ran it like an Irish pub," said Dr. Shea. "He found out what the individual's favorite drink was and then slowly cut the drink with water." In 1972 the state closed the facility, and many of Murphy's "regulars" turned to Valleyhead for detoxification.

Valleyhead's image in Carlisle

As Sarah Andreassen suggested, the fear of mental illness, shock therapy and alcoholism right in the heart of Carlisle was probably responsible for any mystery surrounding Valleyhead. Occasional sightings of patients outside the hospital unnerved South Street residents who would tell of patients peering in their windows. Some neighbors were welcoming — Sheila Semrad, a 30-year resident of South Street, and her husband both worked in the field of mental health. (Elvin V. Semrad, a famous psychiatrist who trained a generation of Boston-area mental health professionals, was Ted Semrad's father). The Semrads would invite some patients to their house on outings. "We had poultry in the yard and sheep in the field," she said. "The patients enjoyed their visits with us."

Every now and then a patient would wander off and the fire bell would sound, rousing the townspeople who formed a search party. Sarah Andreassen remembered "a woman who was found, alive, in Tophet Swamp. She'd been there for quite a while, and everybody came to hunt for her." Another time, in March 1974, the Carlisle Gazette reported that a body was found near Estabrook Woods. "The 24-year-old man was identified as a patient of Valleyhead Hospital on South Street. A formal criminal investigation was ordered."
"Jock House," circa 1950, which later was moved across the street. (courtesy of the Carlisle Historical Society)

Adding to Valleyhead lore is a 1989 Concord Journal article by former resident and Selectman Al Peckham. A gravestone was found near Assurance Technology; the marker read simply, "Jane, 12 years." Peckham asked Ora Donald, then of Concord Street, who had worked at Valleyhead for 13 years, if she'd known a young lady named Jane who died at the age of 12. "Indeed she had," wrote Peckham. "Jane was a Boston Bulldog," who probably belonged to Mrs. Glenn, the mother of Mrs. Lunt, who lived in an English Tudor house that burned on the site of the Dewings' present home on South Street.

Valleyhead's demise

In March 1978, Valleyhead Hospital closed its doors. According to Sarah Andreassen, a combination of "regulations plus high insurance costs in the seventies," contributed to its demise. "Also, times changed then and mental health was looked at differently, it was treated differently, more open as people became more open about it."

On the regulations side, in the mid-seventies the state ordered Valleyhead to install a sprinkler system, but the hospital was built on ledge and even multiple wells could not provide sufficient water for a sprinkler system. Then, in 1976 Valleyhead lost its Medicaid certification, followed the next year by its failure to agree on an insurance contract with Blue Cross. The hospital had no choice but to close. The property was sold in November 1978 to Carlisle developer Arthur Charbonneau, but his plans for development never materialized. Valleyhead's last owner was Dr. Saul Gagnon who also owned Bournewood Hospital in Brookline.

Assurance Technology Corporation

A variety of windows at the back of Valleyhead Hospital. (photo by Midge Eliassen)
H. Larue Renfroe, a Concord engineer, owned a business at One River Road in Carlisle. "I would drive past Valleyhead and I fell in love with it," he said in a recent interview. He bought the property from Charbonneau as headquarters for his new company, Assurance Technology Corporation. In February 1979 the Carlisle Board of Appeals granted a special permit to change the non-conforming use of Valleyhead Hospital to a professional office building. Then, with considerable experience as an amateur architect and a love for old buildings, Renfroe began to make "cosmetic changes" to transform the erstwhile hospital into a space-age company.

I recently toured Assurance Technology with Renfroe. He pointed out Valleyhead's distinctive features — the 24' by 60' living room with two fireplaces, the enormous kitchen and scullery area, the tiny room where ECTs were administered, and on the second floor, the private bedrooms where the "rich and famous" stayed during their treatments. The large bedrooms had private baths and were decorated with bold, grassy-green Colonial-style wallpaper. Wherever possible, Renfroe preserved the original wallpaper or found a comparable design.

Today, these rooms with a past are offices, crammed full with cluttered desks, piles of papers, computers and file cabinets (a former bathroom now holds a battery of file cabinets perched atop an old Valleyhead bathtub!). New walls separate the huge living room, kitchen area and dining room into offices (no cubicles!). The dormitory that once housed elderly men is now an airy corporate conference room, with an enormously high ceiling that reflects its barny beginnings. Next door is the isolation room where Carl Andreassen once peered through the small window, which is still there, an eerie echo of Valleyhead.

At first glance, the basement is a typical glassed-in computer facility, with many people scurrying about and dozens of monitors aglow. Renfroe points out where the 70-foot-long bowling alley used to be, right next to Valleyhead's huge walk-in refrigerator that was innovative for its time.

Round window in the upstairs dormitory area (photo by Midge Eliassen)
Throughout the tour, Renfroe's appreciation of Valleyhead's history, the solid structure of the converted Wilson barn, and the loving workmanship in the wood paneling and other details was palpable. "Notice the windows," he urged. "They're wonderful." There are round windows, floor-to-ceiling bay windows, portholes, windows of every description that let sunlight flood the building. Renfroe has preserved a unique piece of Carlisle history, while transforming it into a work environment for the 21st century.

What does Assurance Technology do exactly? "We develop software-based satellite electrical systems, processors, controllers and communication systems for the military," said Renfroe. About 70 people work in the Carlisle office, 300 are employed company-wide in ATC offices in Chelmsford; Merrimack, New Hampshire; Huntsville, Alabama and Melbourne, Florida. According to the company's Web site, "virtually all U.S. satellites operational today are flying ATC-processed parts."

It might seem incongruous that computers and engineers now populate Valleyhead, where doctors and patients once focused on healing. It is a larger incongruity that this superb structure, which still resonates with Valleyhead's elegance, started as a 19th-century cattle barn.

The quiet presence of Assurance Technology reminds us that there once was such a place as Valleyhead "a lovely, lovely place" in our town.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito