MEDFIELD — In the fall of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the Coolidge Corner Theatre hosted a special drive-in screening of “Shutter Island” in this Norfolk County town. The location was apt: Martin Scorsese’s 2010 thriller, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, was filmed in part on the abandoned grounds of the former Medfield State Hospital.
With more than two dozen buildings on 87 acres, the hospital campus had approximately 2,300 patients at the height of its occupancy. By the time it closed in 2003, just 200 remained. In recent years, the only people making use of the space, about a 40-minute drive outside Boston, have been dog owners and power walkers.
Last summer, however, more than 10,000 people visited the vacant, boarded-up campus. They gathered on the lawn next to Lee Chapel, the centerpiece of the former psychiatric hospital, to hear live local music.
Those shows drew their audiences by little more than word of mouth. This summer, though, the team that has come together to establish the Bellforge Arts Center expects to produce a full slate of concerts, including bookings already confirmed with Buffalo Tom, the exuberant saxophonist Grace Kelly, and a first-of-its-kind festival curated by Boston rapper Cousin Stizz. All events, including upcoming Pride and Juneteenth celebrations, can be found on the Bellforge website.
They’re also gutting and refurbishing the chapel and the nearby infirmary. Within a couple of years, the chapel will become a live music venue with a capacity of 325. The infirmary will house a recording studio and several rehearsal spaces.
“If everything stays on track, we’re looking at the end of 2025″ for an official unveiling, said Jean Mineo, Bellforge’s executive director. She’s a Medfield resident who was director of the Boston Sculptors Gallery for 10 years and, more recently, chairwoman of the Medfield Cultural Council.
The new arts center will roll out in three phases, Mineo said during a recent walk around the grounds. More than 300 rental housing units, some reserved for artists, will become available alongside the music facilities. Later additions are expected to include gallery spaces and a culinary arts center.
“We’re putting a stake in the ground for culture,” said Mineo, who also envisions a sculpture park on the open land. “If you’re buying in, you’re buying into all of it.”
Coinciding with Bellforge’s plans, Trinity Financial will build 334 rental units in the other buildings on the campus. Twenty-five percent of those units will be reserved for affordable housing, Mineo said. As part of the deal, the developer will oversee the work on the chapel and the infirmary. Bellforge has signed a 99-year lease with the town to maintain the arts center on the property.
As she spoke, Mineo walked past a rear building that was once fenced in. It served as the hospital’s home for the “criminally insane.” A group of local students recently installed a cluster of benches in front of that building adorned with messages in mosaic: “Hope Is . . . Light. Optimism. Pure. Everything.”
Medfield State Hospital was built between 1896 and 1914. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2014, the town of Medfield closed on a $3.1 million deal to purchase 128 acres of the property from the state. Four years later, a committee submitted a master plan for the new development. In 2019, the Town Meeting approved zoning requirements and adopted the master plan.
During the planning process, Mineo approached Paul Armstrong to help the arts initiative program live music events. Armstrong is the CEO of Redefined, a music and technology company. After relocating to Boston over a decade ago (“I met my wife at Great Scott,” he said, referring to the Allston music club), he founded the online culture magazine Vanyaland and took over the Boston Music Awards.
Having grown up in England on a steady diet of Boston bands — the Pixies, the Cars, the Lemonheads — Armstrong has a healthy respect for his adopted city’s deep-rooted music scene. He has paid close attention to the arrival of the city’s newest large-scale venues (Roadrunner, MGM Music Hall at Fenway) and the dismaying departure of smaller stages (including ONCE Somerville and the aforementioned Great Scott).
“There’s more than enough talent, but not enough venues to go around,” Armstrong said.
Based on last summer’s successes — artists who helped break in Bellforge’s inaugural season included Cliff Notez, Martin Sexton, and the Q-Tip Bandits — Armstrong and Mineo are confident that audiences will come. They hope to arrange some form of public transportation to and from the venue. In the meantime, there’s plenty of parking, and the land abuts a bucolic section of the Charles River, where the Charles River Link Trail meets the Bay Circuit Trail.
Roughly equidistant between Boston, Providence, and Worcester, the new Bellforge Arts Center should draw visitors from all three metropolitan regions, Armstrong said. On a hot Saturday last August, the Q-Tip Bandits were one of several bands that performed as part of a daylong bill at Bellforge.
“We played with a lot of local bands we had heard about but never actually gotten to play with,” bassist Claire Davis recalled. With a food truck, an alcohol concession, and a relaxed vibe, the field was “like its own little bubble. It had a low-key festival vibe that I think has a lot of potential.”
A Michigan native, Davis said she’s accustomed to seeing what creative people can do in repurposed spaces.
“I loved the area. I thought the buildings were beautiful, and there was a sunflower field in full bloom when we were there. In Detroit, it’s common to have abandoned buildings that often get converted into new things, and there’s a beauty about that to me. I felt lucky we got to be there, bringing good energy to the space.”
When completed, Lee Chapel will feature a state-of-the-art sound system and a motorized seating arrangement, which will convert for both seated and general admission shows, Armstrong said.
“The bones are gorgeous,” he noted as he and Mineo led a reporter and photographer up to the balcony of the empty building. “I’m geeking out. It’s going to be amazing.”
A long time ago, the hospital held Friday night dances for the townspeople. Local lore has it that it cost them a dollar to attend, unless they agreed to dance with the patients.
When it opens, it will cost more than a dollar to attend a show at the new Bellforge Arts Center, but the dancing will still be free.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the company that plans to build rental units on the campus of the former Medfield State Hospital.