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‘Many people believe the [Blackstone] setting is conducive to the recovery of the patients.’ 

Butler Hospital’s campus, with its desirable Blackstone Boulevard address and sweeping views of the Seekonk River, occupies 110 of the more valuable acres of real estate on Providence’s East Side.
So it was unsurprising five years ago when the owners of the 168-year-old psychiatric hospital, which was already overcrowded, openly considered selling the property and building a new facility in a less exclusive neighborhood.  To Butler and owner Care New England officials now, those old plans to sell the historic Blackstone campus and move to the Knowledge District along with a new Brown University medical school seem a long way off. 

Instead of leaving the East Side, Butler is expanding there and is poised to satisfy its need for more space with a new 50,000-square-foot inpatient and admissions center set among the existing hospital buildings.  “Replicating the facilities to accommodate the needs of 170 patients now would be very expensive – that would be a waste of resources,” said Butler President and CEO Dr. Patricia Recupero. “Many people believe the [Blackstone] setting is conducive to the recovery of the patients, more than an inner city or traditional hospital location.”

When construction begins this spring, the $17 million Butler expansion will be one of the largest construction projects in the state during a prolonged period of depressed building activity.  The project is expected to add 26 beds, create between 150 and 200 temporary construction jobs and then another 68 new permanent positions with Butler, including 19 nurses, 16 mental health workers, two social workers, two physicians, two housekeepers and two administrative-support positions.

Despite the overall size of the Blackstone campus, fitting the building into the mix of existing hospital buildings was a challenge.  Architect David Tidwell, partner with Yoder + Tidwell Ltd. in Providence, designed the new building and was charged with tucking it in between the existing hospital building and a 200-year-old oak tree that could not be cut down.  “It was a really tight area, any tighter we would have needed Vaseline to get it in there,” Tidwell said about the building. “It is a sort of an irregularly shaped building because we have a road on one side and a building on the other. We had to bump the road out a little bit so we were not against the tree. We were about as close as we could get.”

The three-story building that Tidwell designed features a pair of overlapping arches that form the entrance and provide the design’s central metaphor of “opening up to wellness.”

“The plan was a sort of an unpeeling and revealing, kind of like the skins of an onion,” Tidwell said. “As you peel back some of the pain that the patients have, you come to a greater understanding of the path to wellness.”  At the operational level, the new first-floor admission, or patient-assessment service area, will provide Butler distinct spaces where patients being admitted or released can wait or be examined.  “What this new facility will allow is specialized areas for children and their families and quiet-space rooms for people who are highly agitated so they are not with those waiting to be seen or discharged,” Recupero said.

Over the years Butler has been working on the expansion project, Recupero said, the standards for clinical space have steadily expanded over time and the new building will put the hospital in line with recommended standards.  When it first opens, the first floor of the building will have admissions and office space while the third floor will be patient rooms and beds.  The second floor will be left unoccupied at the outset and built out when Butler determines where the greatest need is.  Tidwell said the decision to leave the second floor open instead of the third floor was made to avoid having construction noise and work crews disturbing patients when the last floor is completed.  Yoder + Tidwell has designed earlier buildings on the Butler campus, as well as the Times2 Academy charter school on Fillmore Street in Providence and a children’s zoo building at the Roger Williams Park Zoo.

At the end of February, Butler hired E.W. Burman General Contractors of Warwick to lead construction of the project.

This month, Butler is going after the permits it needs to start construction and hopes to break ground in April, said hospital spokeswoman Patti Melaragno. The project is expected to be completed by the summer of 2013.  While the most direct benefits of the new building will be at Butler, hospital officials say the positive impact will be felt throughout the state, where mental-health services are in high demand.  For the last several years, Butler has had to receive a waiver from the state health department to go above its licensed capacity.

“The hospital has been very overcrowded and what that meant was many of the emergency rooms in the area were being hampered because so many people were awaiting transfer to a psychiatric facility,” Recupero said. “It’s a problem in Rhode Island and it is also a national issue.”