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Byberry, from nightmare to dream

SOME SAY the land is haunted. Others say it's cursed. But in the world of real estate, land is land.

SOME SAY the land is haunted. Others say it's cursed. But in the world of real estate, land is land.

A century ago, the doors to the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases, infamously known as Byberry, opened for its first patient.

During its existence, Byberry, at the end of Roosevelt Boulevard in the Somerton section of Northeast Philadelphia, generated a myriad horrific tales of patient murder, torture and rape. Even after the hospital closed in 1990, the grounds became a haven for loiterers and misfits.

But what was once known as a nightmare for the surrounding community and the thousands of people who once walked the hospital's halls has turned into a developer's dream.

"To find 75 acres of undeveloped land in Philadelphia is unheard of," said John Westrum, chief executive of Westrum Development Company, the residential developer of The Arbours at Eagle Pointe, the site's new name.

Today will be the grand opening of four model homes of Wes-trum's 398-unit housing project aimed at those ages 55 and older. Mayor Nutter and other local politicians are expected to attend the ribbon-cutting.

The event will showcase carriage homes with luxuries, including nine-foot ceilings, covered patios and walk-in closets. Villas with lofts and two-car garages will also be built. Homes will be priced from $300,000.

There are plans for a clubhouse with a putting green and roads with friendly names such as Sunflower Drive and Honeysuckle Lane. In the fall, the company sold all of its pre-construction homes.

The ceremony could help put to rest some of the ghosts of the site's past.

The cheery landscape is a far cry from the mental institution that some referred to as "Hell on Earth," where patients were reportedly physically and sexually abused and were forced to endure unsanitary conditions. After World War II, the state expanded the Philadelphia State Hospital, Byberry's new name, to include more than 50 buildings.

Following negative reports about its health conditions and a nationwide deinstitutionalism movement, the hospital closed in 1990.

When Westrum started demolishing the abandoned buildings in 2006, some residents actually mourned the loss.

One man who used to socialize at the old hospital claimed that on any given Friday or Saturday at the height of Byberry's popularity, there would be more than 80 youths running amok.

"The more I hung out there, the more the history started to reveal itself there," he said. "And it was a very brutal history that was being covered up. I just wanted to get it out there."

The 29-year-old man from Mayfair wished to be identified by his online alias, Goddog. Since 2003, he has devoted a Web site to Byberry's history. He described his time partying in the abandoned buildings as one of the best experiences of his life.

"The majority of my friends that I have now I met in there."

Mary Jane Hazell, 74, has lived five blocks from Byberry for 45 years. She is the president of the Somerton Civic Association, the community group that has been closely monitoring and providing feedback about the development project.

She did not have a problem for the most part with the mental hospital while it was in operation.

"As long as these people were taking their medicine they were fine," Hazell said.

But it was when the hospital closed and many of the patients were released on the street that she started to worry.

"That's really where we got our homeless population," she said. "I can't prove anything, but they weren't ready to be out there."

She remembered when an old patient had committed suicide on the train tracks and when another stabbed someone in the neighborhood.

She seriously considered moving into the Arbours herself, but she decided against it because she did not want to move further from her neighbors, Hazell said.

"Now that's it gone this is going to be an ideal situation. There is no other place like this in Philadelphia for seniors."

The 125-acre Eagle Pointe site is divided into three parts: 50 acres are alotted to Westrum's residential development, another 50 acres is designated for commercial development by Brandywine Realty Trust and 25 acres are to remain open space. *