Dr. Joseph H. Ladd School

also known as Exeter School for the Feeble-Minded

The spooky former “School for the Feeble-minded” which decayed for 20 years before being slowly razed building by building.

About this Property

Reason for Demolition

The large 331 acre site in Exeter, Rhode Island has seen many redevelopment plans but none so far have come to fruition. The buildings of the former Ladd School stood decaying from 1990 up until about 2016 when the last of the buildings that could not be repurposed were razed.

The RI Economic Development Corporation was charged with the redevelopment of the former Ladd School property in 1997, and unveiled their masterplan in April of 2000, dubbed the “Exeter Research and Technology Park”. It never happened and was strongly opposed by Grow Smart RI and the Sierra Club for promoting urban sprawl. A quote from Grow Smart RI’s study at the time:

“From both the standpoint of economic feasibility and smart growth, this proposal is deeply flawed. The charge to develop much of the 330-acre former Ladd Center as a commercial site fits a common sprawl-inducing pattern evident in Rhode Island land use decisions over the last 50 years. A nearly static population of Rhode Islanders has developed more commercial, residential, and industrial land since 1961 than in the preceding 325 years of settlement. […] The proliferation and dispersion of commercial development engenders further residential growth, more dependence on automobiles, and more commercial development – at the expense of investment in our historic cities and town centers. Bald Hill Road in Warwick and its counterparts throughout the state is a sobering reminder of the consequence of ill-considered land use decisions. While these degraded landscapes are predominantly the product of private investment, in Exeter the state’s economic development agency is using public money to encourage sprawl.”

A handful of structures started to be razed in the early 2000s, but plans for the site continued to change. In August 2003, the site was going to host a $6.4-million state fire academy. The academy was eventually built on the north side of the property. The academy cost $9.6 million in total and boasts a live burn building and training area which was opened in 2011. Construction was completed in 2017 on a 8,100 square-foot building administration and classroom building. (The tip of which can be seen in the top right of the last few aerial photos.)

In May, 2004, seven University of Rhode Island seniors studying landscape architecture presented their design ideas for establishing a rural village or mixed use development during a public meeting at the Exeter Grange.

In 2008, Exeter received a grant from the Orton Family Foundation to involve residents in exploring and developing a shared vision for the future growth of the town. The project was overseen by town staff, residents, and business owners appointed by the Exeter Town Council. The process sought public feedback over 3 years. The Ladd School site was one of the locations explored for a new residential village designed around the town’s Conservation Development ordinance. From what we can tell via aerial photographs, no new village development has been constructed at the proposed locations.

Current Events

The site of the former school is mostly razed, with only a few structures remaining. New development for the site has not yet taken place.


Visit theladdschool.com, a comprehensive resource about The Dr. Joseph H. Ladd School, formerly the Exeter School for the Feeble-Minded. They have photos, a more complete history, and more detailed stories of what went on there.

We support and admire the Weird Island podcast!

Visit on the web: Weird Island Episode 03: Abandoned, The Ladd School

Like the Boys Training School in Cranston, the Ladd School was built to assist the mentally handicapped. At the turn of the century, however, this was not as pleasant as it might sound. The leading American doctor in 1893, Dr Walter Fernald, proclaimed that the more feeble-minded were destined to become “vagrants, drunkards, and thieves”.

Prior to building the Exeter for the Feeble-Minded in 1907, most patients were treated out of state at places with such charming names as the Connecticut School for Imbeciles and the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded. The Ladd School started as a farm colony, based on programs in other states where patients were housed in small cottage settings, as opposed to large institutions that came later, and worked in a rural setting doing small chores, farming, and later making of clothes and household items. In 1909 they erected a girls dormitory, as the boys was full and a waiting list was established.

In 1917 the name was changed to the Exeter School, dropping the “feeble-minded”, as the term began to grow objectionable. After a decade of mis-management, low funding, and high over-crowded enrollment, in 1928 the Exeter School was a warehouse for society’s refuse. Amidst a steady and growing controversy over his policies, Dr. Joseph Ladd retired on June 1, 1956. It was officially closed as an institution of the state in 1993.

During the early seventies, privately-run homes for the mentally disabled brought suit against the state for running such poor institutions. In 1986, law-makers tried to get it closed because of pending legal issues (child abuse cases), and Rhode Island wanted to abolish institutions from it’s mental health programs.

From The Asylum Antiquarian on Medium, about the most recent building on the Ladd School site, the John E. Fogarty Hospital (the round, spaceship-looking orange and white structure)

Built in 1962, the hospital was named for the U.S. Congressman from Rhode Island, John Fogarty, whose 27-year tenure has been lauded most for its unprecedented contributions toward the the increased awareness and improvement of services for “mentally retarded” citizens. The first and only facility of its kind, the hospital stood for more than a half century on the grounds of the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center; the state’s historic and now defunct institution for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Designed by the architects of Donald J. Prout and Associates, the building — made of reinforced concrete slabs and paneled in bright orange and ivory porcelain — was unlike any other, and conspicuously out of place, in the region. Built at a cost of $1.2 million, funded mostly by a bond issue approved by R.I. voters, at a height of five stories — totaling 74 feet — it was said to be the tallest building in Washington County. Described as “the hospital of tomorrow,” its circular design was claimed to result in “saving 37 per cent in footsteps for the nurses, doctors, and other attendants,” while every room faced a “splendid view of the surrounding countryside.”

The Fogarty Hospital may be well remembered today by former Ladd Center staff members and residents as the state’s premiere medical facility dedicated specifically to treating people with developmental disabilities. Since being abandoned more than two decades ago, younger generations of locals will likely remember it better as a destination for ghost hunters, photographers and “urban explorers.”