Creedmoor Psychiatric Center’s Building 25 was once a haven for NYC’s cast-out mentally ill, but today it houses a much more reviled and equally misunderstood breed of New Yorker. They’re pigeons, and you won’t believe what they’ve done with the fourth floor…
The sprawling Creedmoor campus was constructed in 1912 in Queens Village as the Farm Colony of Brooklyn State Hospital, one of hundreds of similar psychiatric wards erected at the turn of the century to house and rehabilitate those who were ill-equipped to function on their own.
Rejected by mainstream society, hundreds of thousands of mentally disturbed individuals, many afflicted with psychosis and schizophrenia, were transferred from urban centers across the country to outlying pastoral areas where fresh air, closeness to nature, and the healing power of work was thought to be beneficial to curables and incurables alike. These self-sufficient communities provided men and women with serious mental disorders a safe, structured environment to live, work, and receive medical and psychiatric care.
As the 20th century progressed, asylums across the country became overrun with patients, and many institutions became desperately understaffed and dangerously underfunded. Living conditions at some psychiatric wards grew dire—patient abuse and neglect was not uncommon in this period.
By 1960, Creedmoor’s population swelled from 150 in 1918 to over 7,000. As late as 1984, the violent ward of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center was rocked with scandal following the death of a patient, who was struck in the throat with a blackjack by a staff member; the man was restrained in a straitjacket at the time.
With the development of antipsychotic medications came a trend of deinstitutionalization. A series of dramatic budget cuts and dwindling patient populations led to the closing of farm colonies across the United States, and a marked decline at Creedmoor. The campus continues to operate today, housing only a few hundred patients and providing outpatient services. Many of the buildings have been sold off, others, like Building 25, lie fallow.
The campus was dead quiet on the day I stopped by, with the exception of an occasional patient wandering the grounds, rocking back and forth, or speaking to someone who wasn’t there. The building sat on a mostly fenced-off area in the middle of the active complex, practically concealed in the overgrowth.
Inside, the boarded-up first floor was pitch black, but it held the most artifacts, with some rooms filled to the brim with mattresses, wheelchairs, and medical equipment. A preliminary tour of the second and third floor architecture offered nothing out of the ordinary for this traveler, for whom the sight of peeling paint and dark corridors has grown fondly familiar but less than exhilarating.
Some of the hospital’s smaller artifacts still held the power to captivate—a tiny collection of plastic trinkets, a grungy brassiere hung from a pink hanger, a newspaper clipping pronouncing the medical benefits of whiskey. The most intriguing feature was a series of patient murals; many were once painted over but are coming to light again as time peels back the layers. Having seen most of the rooms on the lower floors, I headed once again for the central stairwell and ascended.
Upon opening the door to the fourth floor, a noxious wave of the most nauseating fetor hit me like a brick wall. Amassed in hulking heaps, coating and carpeting the floors beyond recognition, the fruit of a thousand cloacae festered in the 90 degree heat.
For 40 years, generations of pigeons have haunted (and pooped on) this floor, far removed from their dim-witted dealings with the human world, assembling a monument all their own. The effect is visually fascinating, lending some rooms the look of an indoor desert. In others, guano accumulates in stalagmites under popular roosts, the tallest heaps reaching several feet in height. Carcasses litter the surface, hinting at an even larger number entombed within.
I’m clearly an outsider here; my every sinking step is followed by watchers nesting on shit-covered fluorescent fixtures. Their knowing black eyes gleam differently at Creedmoor than they ever did on the sidewalk. Worse—their low, rumbling coos take on a decidedly sinister quality here, with violent fits of flight punctuating an otherworldly soundscape. After spending over an hour in this miasmal hell, the decades-old mustiness of Building 25′s lower floors filled my lungs like the freshest mountain air.
On the second floor I came across an elaborate squatter’s residence in the central dining hall. Mounds of a different type accrued here, but reached greater heights than any on the fourth floor. The kitchen was filled with years’ worth of garbage intersected by narrow, meandering pathways. A living room, kept relatively tidy, featured a sitting area with an array of chairs (including one homemade toilet.) A system of organization began to emerge from the seemingly random assortment of belongings that covered each surface—toiletries, clothing, condoms, hundreds of dead D batteries—I slowly realized that the squat could still be inhabited, a notion that was confirmed by the discovery of an uncomfortably recent newspaper.
I reluctantly continued to the last room I planned to photograph, distinguished by a photogenic series of peeling murals. As I stepped inside, my eyes settled on what looked to be a curious assemblage of blankets fixed atop a medical bed, an image that took moments to register as a human being, whose home I was invading, snoozing peacefully in the light-filled dayroom. After hours of exploring this desolate and increasingly bizarre environment, the sudden jolt of humanity presented a shock. Unwelcome, I made a break for it, passing once more through the dark decaying halls of Building 25, leaving its charms, horrors, and mysteries for the birds.