Hudson Valley Psychiatric Hospitals: Insane Asylums and Psych Centers of Upstate NY

They are now crumbling relics of a bygone era, but in their day, the Valley’s psychiatric hospitals — aka insane asylums — used cutting-edge methods to treat the mentally ill



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middletown state homeopathic hospital circa 1965A doctor demonstrates treatment at Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in 1965

Photograph from New York State Archives

Unorthodox treatment

The Hudson River State Hospital was the second government-owned asylum to open in New York. As with the other former asylums that dotted the Valley, the prevailing attitude at the center was that patients deserved a far more humane level of care than they had previously received. In the early 1800s, the poor and the mentally ill were often lumped into the same undesirable category; it was not uncommon to find them rounded up in one town and dropped off in another. During this era, mentally ill patients were often locked away in cells.

Doctors at the center, however, took a different approach when the facility opened in 1871. Known as “moral treatment,” the regimen involved offering patients natural beauty, impressive architecture, and entertainment; these were seen as the keys to a cure. “If you could change the environment, you could reverse the cause of the illness,” says Dr. Grob of the thinking at the time.

The surroundings were clearly impressive. In addition to the Victorian buildings designed by famed architect Frederick Withers, the rolling landscape was crafted by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the Central Park tag team, whose lawns soak in views of the Hudson and the Shawangunk Mountains beyond. Patients grew their food at on-site farms and harvested ice, according to old photos. The feeling of summer camp was intentional, says Dr. Jim Regan, a psychology professor at Marist College and the former director of Hudson River Psychiatric. At that time, he explained, it was assumed that the best hope for helping patients was to handle them like children.

A major component of moral treatment was the so-called Kirkbride building, named after Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, who developed a well-known treatise on the ideal asylum design. Dozens of massive structures, mainly characterized by their somewhat unique “bat-wing” floor plan and imposing architecture, were built around the country in the late 19th century. But the main administration building at Poughkeepsie is unique for a Kirkbride: one wing is shorter than the other. Due to cost constraints, only two of the planned five female wards were built.

Eventually, the building became unworkable (it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989); by 2003, most of the center’s functions had moved to a newer complex on the other side of Route 9G. In 2005, the older property was sold to a joint venture of CPC Resources and the Chazen Companies, who plan to build homes and stores on it while preserving landmark buildings if at all possible.

 

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