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Abandoned, Hospitals

Kings Park Psychiatric Center’s Building 93

The quintessential asylum clocks in at 13 stories.

Kings Park Psychiatric Center’s Building 93

The ruins of Long Island’s Kings Park Psychiatric Center are often described as the perfect setting for a horror movie, and sure enough, several have been shot here. Poe and Lovecraft’s narrators may have been writing from asylum cells, but today’s horror heroes are venturing inside the abandoned ones. As shuttered institutions across the United States fall into decay, the insane asylum is showing up with increasing regularity in our scary movies, TV shows, books, and urban legends, quickly becoming synonymous with vengeful spirits, villainous doctors, and murderous mental patients. But while we may enjoy the “thrill of the shudder” while looking back at these places, we should be wary of reinforcing the stigma of mental illness and overlooking the nuanced history of American institutions.

A craft room on the ground floor still held looms and half finished rugs.

A craft room on the ground floor still held looms and half finished rugs.

Established in 1885 by the city of Brooklyn prior to the consolidation of the five boroughs, Kings County Asylum followed the farm colony model popular at the time, designed as a self-sufficient community where residents were put to work raising crops and livestock to support the sprawling campus. The labor was thought to be therapeutic, occupying the time and attention of residents and keeping costs down. Early in its history, Kings Park was composed of a group of cottages meant to avoid the high rise asylum model which was already viewed as inhumane. But demand soared as the population skyrocketed in New York City into the 1930s, and in 1939 the institution resorted to constructing Building 93, a 13-story structure whose design was strikingly similar to what it had sought to avoid. At its peak in the 1950s, Kings Park reached a population of over 9,000 residents, who were divided by gender, age, temperament, and physical limitations through a complex of over 100 buildings, which included power plants, fire stations, staff housing, hospitals, recreational facilities, piggeries, and cow barns.

Beds may have been moved down when patients were moved to pilgrim.

Beds may have been moved down in 1996 when Kings Park’s last residents were relocated to nearby Pilgrim State.

Furniture abandoned on the ground floor.

Furniture and equipment left behind on the ground floor.

Throughout its history, Kings Park was notable for staying on the cutting edge of psychological science, cementing its place in history as an early adopter and proponent of a succession of new procedures and medications that eventually led to the institution’s decline. In the first half of the 20th century, the psychological community was in a state of desperation, charged with the task of caring for a growing number of mentally ill patients with few treatment options available aside from psychotherapy and the rampant use of restraints and confinement. The 1940s saw the rise of two groundbreaking, albeit crude, procedures that gave doctors effective tools to manage extremely disturbed patients for the first time.

Shock therapy was conceived when doctors observed that the mood of epileptic patients suffering from depression improved after a seizure. The procedure aimed to replicate these benefits by inducing a seizure through electricity or insulin injection. Electroconvulsive therapy, as it’s known today, is still considered an effective treatment, even having a resurgence in recent years.  But today’s advanced anesthesia and precise control of the duration and physical effects of seizures is a far cry from what patients went through in the 1940s.  Strapped fully conscious to a hospital bed, patients could convulse for up to fifteen minutes at a time, often with enough force to fracture and break bones.  Once a patient was admitted to an asylum, they had no right to give or deny consent for these procedures, and in many cases, shock therapy was used as a punitive measure to keep unruly residents in line.

Early diagram of the transorbital lobotomy.

Early diagram of a transorbital lobotomy.

The lobotomy is remembered as one of the most grotesque treatment methods of the era. It was a simple procedure, in which a metal tool was inserted through the eye socket into the skull cavity, and wrenched around to sever the connections of the pre-frontal cortex from the rest of the brain.  It was an imprecise and brutal operation, which left lobotomized individuals with no trace of their former selves. Though proponents of the procedure called these results a “second childhood,” lobotomized patients might have been more accurately described as zombies—extremely violent and disturbed residents would be rendered permanently docile, passive, and easy to control. Though it was controversial even in its time, its first proponents were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1949 for their discovery.

A 1960s advertisement for antipsychotic medication.

A 1960s advertisement for antipsychotic medication.

The development of effective antipsychotic medication in the mid-1950s signaled the decline of these extreme measures and the institution system as a whole. For the first time, residents once considered hopeless were able to manage their mental illness and live independently. This led to a dramatic shift in institutions across the country from severe overcrowding to near-abandonment as a trend of deinstitutionalization swept through America into the 80s and 90s. But as anxious as the powers that be were to put this dark period of history behind them (and cut funding out of state budgets,) they may have done too much too soon. While medication has made it possible for most people living with severe mental disorders to function on their own, there is still a sizable percentage for whom the available medications are ineffective. Reputable group homes for the mentally ill are few and far between, and out of reach for individuals without a solid support system in place. Many suffering from severe mental illness today are living on the streets, and a growing number end up incarcerated, without proper access to quality psychiatric care. Today, Kings Park stands as a testament to a bygone era, but the problem it sought to address remains unsolved.

Painted a aquamarine, layers, history of medical colors fashionable at the time.

Layers of colored paint peel from a hallway of isolation rooms.

Elevators.

Lower floors housed able-bodied residents with large day rooms, while the infirm were confined to the upper levels.

With a strikingly similar design.

Each floor was nearly identical, with subtle variations in color and layout.

Vestibules connected day rooms, dormitories, cafeterias and isolation chambers.

A central hallway connected day rooms, dormitories, dining halls, and isolation chambers.

Patient rooms leading to the cafeteria.

Patient rooms leading to the cafeteria.

Kings Park

Vines overtaking the exterior of Building 93.

Check out Part 1 of “A History Abandoned” from Vocativ.com, which follows me on an exploration through three NYC institutions.  First up, Kings Park:


 

But wait… There’s more! (Please excuse this brief sales pitch.)

 

Abandoned NYC, the book, is available for pre-order!

 

Abandoned NYC is packed with 150 full-color photographs of sixteen of New York’s most beautiful and mysterious abandoned spaces, including several you haven’t seen on the blog, along with new images and updated essays from many of your favorites. I’ve kept this quiet up until now and I’m so excited to share it with all of you!  Stay tuned for signings and events in February. :)

 

 

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Discussion

13 thoughts on “Kings Park Psychiatric Center’s Building 93

  1. Hey Will, so good to have a new posting!! The narrative and photos are fantastic. The video is really fascinating, looking forward to seeing more of them. Many thanks!!!

    Like

    Posted by Frank Brennan | 6-17-14., 7:09 pm
  2. Hi Will,
    Thanks for the posting about KPPC and also noting some of the current serious issues with the current Mental Health Care System due to lack of facilities (and care) after the closing of many of them during the past 30 years.
    I believe there once were 500,000 Mental Hospital beds nationally, but sadly now there are just 40,000 beds. The “Geniuses” that run this country choose to ignore this issue and then wonder why there are so many gun related tragedies caused mentally ill people. I grew up near Kings Park in the 60s – 80s and remember some of my friends parents who worked very hard at KPPC to provide good care for the (10,000) patients residing there. Some of them were Vets. The issues occurring today didn’t happen in the past when facilities, such as KPPC, existed. When they started closing KPPC and other facilities in the 80s, I remember the large increase in mentally ill homeless people in Manhattan where I worked back then. It was distributing to see this happen and everyone knew it would lead to further problems in the future.

    I also remember driving through the KPPC grounds which were always nicely landscaped. It wasn’t a scary place. The Center allowed community youth sports teams to use York Hall Auditorium (Building 80) for basketball and also use of their baseball fields. Some of the patients were allowed out during the day and I don’t remember any issues with them. Some of them were “real characters” and they enjoyed watching the kids play ball. It is sad to see what has happened, on many levels, since the demise of this facility and many others throughout the country.
    They weren’t perfect, but much better than the alternative that we sadly live with today.

    Thanks for your website. I enjoy reading the history behind the sites that you write about.

    BJ

    Like

    Posted by BJ | 6-17-14., 9:24 pm
  3. To those shocked by the condition of the inside of this building as depicted in the photos. This facility was abandoned many years ago and was subsequently trashed for many years. It did not look like the photos posted on this website, when it was in use in the past. I know because I visited it in the 1970s when it was still in use. The State should have demolished the building and not left it and others to become biohazards. Will, hopefully you wore a mask respirator to avoid inhaling the old lead paint dust and asbestos insulation.

    Like

    Posted by Fred | 6-18-14., 12:15 am
  4. @BJ: Actually there have been school shootings in the U.S. for about a hundred years that I know of, to say nothing of people who go on a rampage elsewhere as a prelude to suicide. It’s just that now every case gets reported nationwide within hours and chewed over for multiple 24-hour news cycles. Statistically, people with diagnosed mental illnesses are more likely than the general population to be victims of violence, not perpetrators. They also tend to die more frequently at younger ages, sometimes directly due to their condition (most often by suicide that does not involve violence toward anyone else), sometimes because they are poor and therefore underfed, cold, exposed to dirt, etc.

    Some of the people at KPPC were not suffering from any form of mental illness. They had been committed because they were gay, or unruly teenagers, or unwed mothers, or unwanted dependents–a man could sign his children or even his wife over on his say-so not so long ago–or they had some form of mental retardation. Basically they couldn’t pass as prosperous, capable, and contented citizens fulfilling certain prescribed roles, so off they went. That kind of “care” does not need to come back, ever. But I agree with you that we need inpatient care for those who are suffering. The rationale when these facilities were closed one after another was basically, “Oh, gee, with these pills anybody can get a job that will support them and pay for the pills besides! The pills, they are perfect!” Ironically, it was magical thinking.

    Like

    Posted by Jenny Islander | 6-18-14., 2:46 am
  5. What an amazing post. Your photos have an energy of their own. Thank you for sharing the background of this building and insight on mental illness.

    Like

    Posted by TW | 6-19-14., 12:49 pm
  6. What about the other center Pilgrim State in Commack? It is older and much bigger than KPSC and also has a much more interesting history.

    Like

    Posted by David Fischer | 6-25-14., 2:36 pm
    • Just to give some history (the following was taken from the NYS OMH website):

      “In 1927, New York Governor Alfred Smith, with public support, pressed the legislature to appropriate money to obtain a minimum of 10,000 beds needed to relieve overcrowding and treat the increasing numbers of people who would need treatment in a mental institution.

      Such a big hospital had to be located out in the country where land was cheap. It had to be as nearly complete and self–sufficient as possible, generating its own electricity, pumping its own water and growing some of its food. One thousand acres in Brentwood was chosen for this to be another farm colony.

      Pilgrim State Hospital was created by the Legislature in 1929 and named for Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim, Commissioner of Mental Health in the early 1900s. The hospital officially opened for the care and treatment of patients on 825 acres with 100 patients transferred from Central Islip State Hospital on October 1, 1931. Nine months later, 2,018 patients were hospitalized at Pilgrim. The census rose to its peak in 1954, with 13,875 patients.

      Pilgrim was the largest facility of its kind in the world when it was built. The hospital community was independent in that it had its own water works, electric light plant, heating plant, sewage system, fire department, police department, courts, church, post office, cemetery, laundry, store, amusement hall, athletic fields, greenhouses, and farm.

      Over time, as increasing numbers of patients were able to be discharged and greater support and services became available in the community, the need for such large facilities to treat the mentally ill was diminished. Following the trend, Kings Park Psychiatric Center and Central Islip Psychiatric Center were consolidated and relocated to the Pilgrim campus in the Fall of 1996. The following Fall, those facilities were merged into Pilgrim Psychiatric Center under one name. Today, Pilgrim reflects the history and best practices for care and treatment of all three facilities and has become a modern health care delivery system serving the mentally ill adults of Long Island.”

      That is just the history that they tell you about. In my life I have been witness to escapes, murder investigations as well as a fire the somehow damaged two buildings not even near to each other.

      Like

      Posted by David Fischer | 6-25-14., 2:47 pm
  7. I would really love to go and explore this site. Was it tough to slip in undetected? I heard the police monitor it well.

    Like

    Posted by sngblr | 6-29-14., 3:26 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Inside the haunted halls of an abandoned mental asylum created as a 'lunatic farm' where 'over 9,000 psychiatric patients were locked away from the world' | Hihid News - 7-5-14.

  2. Pingback: Inside the haunted halls of an abandoned mental asylum created as a ‘lunatic farm’ where at one time ‘over 9,000 psychiatric patients were locked away from the world’ | Social Dashboard - 7-5-14.

  3. Pingback: Inside abandoned Kings County Asylum, in Kings Park, Lond Island | Social Dashboard - 7-5-14.

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  5. Pingback: Kings Park State Hospital & Cemetery | The Inmates of Willard 1870 to 1900 / A Genealogy Resource - 12-9-14.

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