In 2003, the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (MMHC) building was scheduled for demolition in order to make way for the hospital’s facilities. Over a 90-year span, thousands of patients had passed through its doors and hundreds of psychiatric doctors had trained there. As Christopher Jobson writes, the pending demolition presented a unique problem:
How does one memorialize a building impossibly rich with a history of both hope and sadness, and do it in a way that reflects not only the past but also the future? And could this memorial be open to the public, not as a speech, or series of informational plaques, but as an experience worthy of the building’s unique story?
To answer these questions artist Anna Schuleit was commissioned to do the impossible. After an initial tour of the facility she was struck not with what she saw but with what she didn’t see: the presence of life and color. While historically a place of healing, the drab interior, worn hallways, and dull paint needed a respectful infusion of hope. With a limited budget and only three months of planning, Schuleit and an enormous team of volunteers executed a massive public art installation called Bloom. The concept was simple but absolutely immense in scale. Nearly 28,000 potted flowers would fill almost every square foot of the MMHC including corridors, stairwells, offices, and even a swimming pool, all of it brought to life with a sea of blooms. The public was then invited for a limited 4-day viewing as a time for needed reflection and rebirth.
Schuleit says she created Bloom to address “the persistent absence of flowers in psychiatric hospital settings.” The sterile hospital rooms were filled with heather, yellow begonias, and tulips, and the long hallways with white chrysanthemums and red amaryllis. 5,600 square feet of live, lush sod covered the basement floor, and the empty swimming pool now rippled with the color of thousands of African violets.
During the public installation, ambient sounds, recorded during the hospital’s last weeks, were played in a continuous loop over the building’s public address system. It was as if “the flowers were making all that noise,” says Schuleit. As one visitor wrote in the project’s guestbook: “Color is the power I never knew. All that was missing then, now is.” (New York Times)
When the four-day open house ended, the artist and her volunteers dismantled the work and donated the 28,000 flowers to area hospitals, shelters, halfway houses, and state institutions, where they continued to bloom.
These photographs are all that remain of Schuleit’s art installation. They serve as a moving reminder of the caring people who gave their time, energy, and attention to others— the families, the doctors, patients, and staff.