The act of quarantine has, of course, been used throughout Richmond’s history to stop the spread of viral contagion. But the quarantine concept has also been used here to halt what many believed to be moral contagion as well.
In the early 19th century, Magdalen Societies began to appear in cities all over America, the first being founded in Philadelphia in 1800. These charities sought out “fallen women,” like sex workers, to rehabilitate into moral rectitude. Magdalen members believed that once these women were quarantined from the people and associations of their sinful lives, they could be reformed. This moral quarantine came in the form of housing, meals and a strict schedule, which often included prayer and training in handicrafts. In 1874, the Magdalen Association of Richmond opened such a home on Spring Street, in Oregon Hill, in the 1819 Parsons House. Their stated mission was to provide “shelter and reformation for fallen women.” Within ten years, the mission of the home had narrowed somewhat, as a refuge for unwed mothers.
By 1881, the Spring Street Home took in around twenty women per year, seeing them through their pregnancies, childbirth and adjustment to motherhood. At a time when the stigma of single motherhood was so great that a family’s social standing could be ruined by a pregnancy, maternity homes put a curious twist in the concept of the moral quarantine. Many argue that the main goal of maternity homes in general was to hide the women from “good society”, rather than to save them from the bad. Either way, the Spring Street Home sat on extensive grounds in Oregon Hill, and even had a view of the river.
In 1932, it moved to a 100-acre parcel in the West End and was renamed Brookfield. The new facility had dorm rooms, living rooms, a recreation room, nurseries, delivery rooms, a chapel and a library. The entrance to Brookfield bore a stone carved motto: They Shall Obtain Mercy. Fees were charged to those who could pay. By this time, the home served mostly teenagers and was the oldest of its kind south of Baltimore. In 1968, the home moved again, to a smaller facility on the north side. Five years later, they integrated to serve African Americans. But societal changes, including birth control innovations, legal access to abortion and changing social attitudes about single motherhood made Brookfield increasingly irrelevant. In 2011, it closed for good. The west end location was demolished in 1968 for development, but the original 1819 building in Oregon Hill still stands.