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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harlem valley psychiatric centerA weed-choked courtyard at the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center

Photograph by Jeff Sumberg

Community spirit

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

Harlem Valley’s spectral, almost spooky buildings still catch the attention of passengers on Metro-North trains

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.

 

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