The former Dr. William F. Roberts Hospital School in St. John, New Brunswick, like any slightly run-down former hospital from the mid 1960s, has a certain creepy, institutional vibe. Until the Canadian province shut it down in 1985, it housed hundreds of young wards with mental and physical disabilities. But overcrowding, underfunding, and good-old-fashioned ignorance of how to treat such complex cases also made it a breeding ground for neglect and abuse. In the 90s, two ex-employees pled guilty to 14 sexual abuse charges involving former residents. Other allegations were settled out of court.
Given the former hospital's dark history, the cemetery across the street, and its view of the grey ocean, one can see why some people say it's haunted.
Others might wonder why a former children's psychiatric facility with such a tragic past hasn't been abandoned or torn down. Now, however, it's a commercial and retail space called the Maritime Opportunity Centre. Doug Leavitt, a maintenance man who's worked there for nearly 30 years, says he's heard of people seeing strange apparitions and hearing echoes in the halls of the 260,000-square-foot facility. "An engineer told me he saw a little girl walking up the hallway carrying a blanket, he says. "And she disappeared. She walked right through the wall."
"Some people are scared to come in here," says Dave Biron, who now owns and leases out the space. Although many areas have been renovated, and the place is kept clean, the center looks "basically the same as it did when it was a hospital," according to Biron. The rooms formerly occupied by young patients—in wings A, C, and E—have been renovated and rented out. The auditorium and chapel were emptied long ago. Still, some swear there are unhappy spirits hanging around, making strange sounds late at night.
On our tour, we encounter the engineer who told Doug Leavitt he saw the ghost of a little girl roaming the halls. I ask him if he's ever seen anything creepy.
"Nothing you could explain," he says. Like what? He pauses at length.
Before I could ask more, he suddenly has to take an urgent phone call and disappears into the boiler room. Alrighty then.
The circuitous wings, metal grates on the doors, and institutional color palette of weathered 1970s blue, brown, and beige all bear witness to the building's former life. Seemingly endless corridors stretch toward heavy, reinforced doorways. ("It's a lot of wasted space," says Biron.) One of the disused former "quiet rooms," a windowless brick cell that measures about 10' x 6', adjoins a bathroom outfitted in lurid pink and green tiles. Notable is the size of the bathtubs, sinks, and toilets, specifically designed for tiny physiques.
One former dormitory for residents has been converted into a doggie daycare. Barking echoes off the cement floors. Leavitt points to the white storage cubbies on the walls, which formerly stored the belongings of several dozen children who slept in this room. As we make our way down the hallways, he gestures to another door.
"This here's interesting. This used to be the morgue," he says. "I can't take you in there, though." Gotta wonder how the trade union renting the space feels about that.
After the hospital was closed in the 1980s, the provincial government "didn't want anything more to do with it," according to Biron. A group of engineers purchased it with plans to open a trade center, but the project fizzled out. Repurposing the former hospital as a commercial and storage space has proven an innovative, if unusual, way of reversing what would likely have been an unremittingly sad story concluding with a wrecking ball. Saint John's even-more-famously-creepy psychiatric hospital, Centracare, as well as its Old General Hospital, were both acquired by private purchasers and subsequently demolished in the 1990s.
"I'm sure if we didn't take it on it would have been bulldozed years ago," says Biron.
This year, the Maritime Opportunity Centre is marking 30 years in business—which means that it's been a commercial and storage space longer than it was a hospital. "There are forty businesses here now, all of them locally owned," says leasing agent Gina Hooley, who refers to the eclectic cohort of tradespeople, chemical manufacturers, veterinary services, caterers, and artists who rent out the space as a "family." Plus, she says, "we have some of the lowest lease rates in town."
Still, walking through the long, empty hallways, one can sometimes catch weird echoes, or seem to detect the (almost certainly psychosomatic) scent of iodoform disinfectant. Despite the creep factor, Biron swears he's the only specter haunting the place. "They think there are remnants of tortured people here—from when they had the crazy people locked up," he says with a laugh.
"I'm in here late all the time, and I never heard nothin' roaming the halls."
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