Why was the Hillcrest Building torn down? What was the history behind this structure?
—Perry Alexander ’91

What remains of the Hillcrest Building today is a conspicuously vacant expanse of grass between UMBC’s West Hill and Terrace Apartments. Yet Hillcrest occupies a very important place not only in UMBC’s history, but also in the history of mental health treatment in the United States.

Hillcrest served as the site of the university’s first administration building in 1966. It hosted a variety of university functions, including the housing of student organizations and the operation of the popular basement social club known as The Rathskeller (or “Ratt,” for short) for 34 years until its closure in 2000. The building also inspired a great deal of curiosity in the time between its phasing out of campus use and its eventual demolition in 2007.

As curious as many UMBC students and faculty and staff may be about Hillcrest, the building’s history before it was acquired by the University of Maryland is perhaps even more significant, intriguing, and problematic – and also a probable source of campus fascination with the building.

Hillcrest was the first structure in the history of the United States to be designed and erected specifically for the containment and rehabilitation of “criminally insane” patients. It opened in March 1922 as an extension of Spring Grove State Hospital, and remained in operation until its closure in 1965.

Indeed, the Hillcrest Building’s roots as a locus of pioneering psychiatric care and as the cradle of the planning and early administration of UMBC represent two contrasting historical identities that, when recalled simultaneously, ultimately made preserving the building (and its baggage) an impractical task.

The first facility dedicated to the treatment of the criminally insane in America was founded in 1859 at the Auburn State Penitentiary in Auburn, New York. Similar facilities appeared across the country in the years that followed. All of them were created as subsidiary components of their respective state penitentiaries, rather than as independent medical institutions poised to handle the unique challenges of treating individuals who were then-labeled as “criminally insane.”

J. Percy Wade, the superintendent of Spring Grove State Hospital from 1896 to 1927, pursued the creation of a special building for the criminally insane in 1917, after noticing the inadequate treatment options available, especially for shell-shocked soldiers returning from World War I. Wade sought to both alleviate the burden placed on state penal institutions that were ill-equipped to deal with such patients, and renew the role of the hospital environment as a place of refuge.

In 1921, the Maryland legislature allocated $135,500 in funds to construct Hillcrest. The building’s footprint was approximately 40 feet by 120 feet, and its interior was more than 23,000 square feet. The building’s brick and sandstone exterior emulated Georgian architectural motifs. Hillcrest was located approximately one mile from the main Spring Grove campus, in an area surrounded mostly by farmland and steep topography. Hillcrest’s location was chosen in an effort to hinder escape attempts and to maximize community security while minimizing disruption to the main campus. The quiet surroundings also were thought to be therapeutic to patients.

Unlike patients on the main hospital campus, Hillcrest patients were not allowed to watch motion pictures or theatrical shows for fear of inciting violence or escape attempts. The prospect of escape was particularly feared by hospital administrators because of the safety risk for patients and potential embarrassment to the hospital.

Hillcrest wasn’t all work. Students could relax there.
Hillcrest wasn’t all work. Students could relax there.

These fears, along with changes in psychiatric techniques, led to the construction of isolation rooms in 1927 for unruly patients. The carefully selected patients admitted to Hillcrest also engaged in occupational rehabilitation, often sewing their own clothes, growing crops, and tilling the surrounding farmland.

By the mid-1950s, Hillcrest not only faced overcrowding, but it had declined as the leading facility for the care of criminally insane patients in Maryland after the opening of the new Clifton T. Perkins Hospital in Jessup. Interest by Spring Grove administrators in selling the property coincided with the University of Maryland’s selection of a site for UMBC, and Hillcrest was part of the 435-acre tract upon which the university was founded

Hillcrest’s key role as the university’s first administration building, Residential Life headquarters, and hub for campus Greek organization and social life faded as UMBC developed newer and more functional spaces, including University Center and The Commons. But even after its closure in 2000, Hillcrest retained an outsized place in campus folklore and legend.

Campus tales about the building drew upon Hillcrest’s psychiatric roots, positing that a patient who served as a model for the character of Hannibal Lecter in the novel (and the film) The Silence of the Lambs was once treated within its walls. Some reported seeing ghostly figures in windows or hearing strange sounds emanating from inside. (The supposition that U.M.B.C. stood for “U Must Be Crazy” may also have roots in the building’s past.) And, of course, Hillcrest’s history as a former institution for the most violent and volatile mental health patients of its time certainly stood in stark contrast to its aspirations as an honors university.

Student protests rocked Hillcrest in 1970.
Student protests rocked Hillcrest in 1970.

In its final years, Hillcrest stood out in stark contrast to the neo-contemporary architecture of the rest of the university. Yet the building’s lack of unique exterior architectural features (considering the era of its construction) also meant that it had difficulty being placed on state and national historic registers. Local preservationists came to the building’s defense when UMBC announced plans in 2004 to raze Hillcrest to create additional parking and living space on campus. One group – a newly-formed Hillcrest Historical Society – successfully lobbied the Baltimore County Historical Trust to survey the building and secured its placement on the trust’s preservation watch list.

Despite the publicized involvement of community watchdog groups, however, UMBC eventually obtained clearance to demolish Hillcrest in 2006 and it finally did so in July 2007. Yet Hillcrest and its elusive past have not been forgotten, and the building represents a bygone era that remains impressive both for its contributions to medical history and the foundation of the university itself.

— Trevor J. Blank ’05

(See “Hillcrest: An Intriguing Blend of Past and Present”, The UMBC Retriever, 1975)
Read more Histories & Mysteries