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
In May, the mid-Hudson Valley was buzzing with the news that the state’s Office of Mental Health planned to relocate most of the 150 live-in patients at the Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie to Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg. The goal was to save tens of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, jobs — 375 of them — could also be lost.
It’s the end of an era.
But in reality, the end has been coming for a long time. Hudson River Psychiatric is actually the successor to the once-grand Hudson River State Hospital on Route 9 across from Marist College. Completed in 1871, this 300-acre landscaped campus with elegant Gothic buildings housed as many as 6,000 patients and employed thousands in its heyday in the 1950s. Now, the buildings lay in ruins — the victims of a drastically altered mental health system, and also of major fires in 2007 and 2010 that consumed the structures several years after the state abandoned the campus.
The Poughkeepsie institution is just one of several abandoned psychiatric hospitals in the Valley. While most of them sit in various states of eerie disrepair, awaiting either demolition or further development, they have one thing in common: each has captured the public’s imagination. Many people have wondered about what went on inside these sprawling campuses, and dozens of Web sites chronicle the adventures of those who (often illegally) crawl through their crumbling buildings.
“Those buildings are a great window into understanding how much differently society dealt with the problem of mental illness back in the day,” says Gerald Grob, Ph.D., a former professor of medical history at Rutgers whose books on the topic include The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill.
A doctor demonstrates treatment at Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in 1965
Photograph from New York State Archives
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.
A weed-choked courtyard at the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center
Photograph by Jeff Sumberg
Changing approaches to care for the mentally ill also spelled the end for Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, whose roughly 800-acre red-brick campus straddles Route 22 in the Dutchess County hamlet of Wingdale.
The facility, which opened in 1924, was built to lessen overcrowding at other asylums. And like Hudson River Psychiatric, patients were encouraged to spend time outdoors; according to news reports, they occasionally caddied for doctors who played golf at a nine-hole course on the site. At its peak, in the mid-1950s, there were more than 5,000 patients and 5,000 employees. At this time, the property had 80 buildings, many of them connected by tunnels. There was an ice cream shop, whose round swivel stools wouldn’t look out of place at a Friendly’s; a stage, whose wine-red curtain was still intact a few years ago; a baseball field and grandstand; and other components of a stand-alone community, including a bakery, one of the biggest dairy farms in the county, and a bowling alley.
In the mid-1930s, Harlem Valley became the first U.S. asylum to use insulin shock therapy when Dr. Manfred Sakel came from
Vienna to teach the psychiatrists how to this new technique. Soon, physicians from all over the country began arriving at the hospital to study what was, at the time, a cutting-edge procedure. Harlem Valley was also a leader in introducing electroshock therapy in the ’40s and, soon thereafter, frontal-lobe lobotomies.
But by the 1960s, the population was dropping at Harlem Valley and other asylums, as powerful new antipsychotic drugs like Thorazine helped patients avoid being institutionalized in the first place. In the 1970s, policy-makers changed their tune about where the mentally ill should be treated — preferring smaller, lower-cost facilities in the towns, not tucked away on the fringes — which meant they began to empty the asylums in earnest.
Harlem Valley closed in 1994, but its spectral, almost spooky buildings still catch the attention of passengers on Metro-North trains, which glide by a few feet away. In 2003, the Benjamin Companies, a real estate developer, bought the property for about $4 million, with hopes of turning it into a retirement village called Dover Knolls. Ground-breaking for the project’s first phase, on the west side of Route 22, is expected to occur next spring, says Russell Mohr, vice-president for real estate development for the Benjamin Companies.
But the asylum look won’t vanish completely, Mohr says: the hulking old administration building will be preserved, and its deep lawn will become a public park. “It’s been a very long and trying process,” says Mohr, who has redeveloped two similar complexes on Long Island.
A doctor and nurse at Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in 1965. They are inspecting the equipment used for shock therapy treatment
Photograph from New York State Archives
The Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital was the first institution of its kind in the world when it opened in 1874. The idea was to apply homeopathic principles to the institutional care of mental illness. Developed by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy sought to cure symptoms of disease by using drugs that induced similar symptoms, thereby restoring the patient’s “vital force.” Dr. Selden Haines Talcott, who ran the institution around the turn of the last century, believed that “the physical means for recuperating the worn and wasted systems of the insane may be stated in three words — heat, milk, and rest.” His patient-staffed baseball teams, which played on land that now seems windswept and empty, were also legendary.
In its prime, the campus had temple-like chapels, huge Tudor estates for nurses, and numerous entertainment halls, as well as a “profusion of floral beauties which constitute at once a charm and inspiration,” according to a New York Times account from that era. The hospital closed in 2006; many of the buildings have been demolished or are slowly decaying (like similar institutions around the country).
Above: Matteawan State Hospital, as it looked in 1913 (photograph from New York State Archives). Below, Matteawan today, as part of the Fishkill Correctional Facility (photograph by Jeff McMullin)
When asylums weren’t pawned off by the state to builders, they occasionally found other uses. In Fishkill, some buildings from the former Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane now serve as part of the medium-security Fishkill Correctional Facility. But in 1886, the site was considered rural, set apart, and dramatic — in other words, perfect for helping troubled people improve themselves. It was purchased from the Dates family for $25,000.
Outdoors, patients played “quoits,” which was similar to horseshoes, and made rugs and baskets. By 1949, however, the facility was jam-packed, with almost 1,500 men and 250 women, in a space that was built for 550. Around that time, George Metesky, aka the Mad Bomber (he planted explosives around New York City for more than a decade), was its most notorious patient; he was eventually released. Legal decisions in the 1970s making it more difficult to keep mentally ill people incarcerated led to Matteawan being absorbed into the prison system.