Last month Vocativ.com followed me through three decaying institutions in New York City, resulting in a three part series, “A History Abandoned” which you can check out on YouTube. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to venture inside an abandoned building, these videos give you a pretty good idea. Props to Vocativ for keeping the focus on the history. Let me know what you think and if you’d like to see more like this in the future!
Episode 1: Kings Park Psychiatric Center
Episode 2: Letchworth Village
Episode 3: New York City Farm Colony
At the center of Staten Island lies a bucolic expanse of ancient forest, a city-owned amalgam of parks, scout camps, and overgrown lots collectively termed the Greenbelt. It’s an area known for its natural beauty, its murders, and its ruins—on the southern rim, off Brielle Avenue, there’s not one but two historic hospitals that are crumbling to oblivion. The grounds of Sea View Hospital and the New York City Farm Colony may be the most forgotten quarter of the forgotten borough, representing New Yorks’ highest concentration of derelict buildings, with over two dozen scattered through 300 acres of mostly wooded land.
What’s left of the Farm Colony only comes out in the winter—from May to November, thick greenery conceals the battered rubblestone facades of its twelve remaining structures—over forty years of neglect, trees have reclaimed the grounds. The forest bends when the wind gusts, groaning like a legion of creaky doors. In areas that had once been cleared for farmland, thorns amass in undulating hillocks, hooking and scoring the flesh of any who dare to trudge through the overgrowth. Some of the vines have adhered to the ruins of the oldest buildings, whose interiors have almost completely collapsed, leaving only a tangle of splintered beams and nail-studded boards. If you peek through the window of one of these wrecks, there’s a German Expressionist nightmare of canted doorways and lurching walls.
These dormitories replaced the charmless farmhouses of the Richmond County Poor Farm, which had operated on the spot since 1829 to house and rehabilitate New York City’s aging poor. By the time Staten Island was incorporated as a borough of New York City, the Poor Farm was renamed the Farm Colony. With distinctive gambrel roofs modeled in the Dutch Colonial Style, the buildings constructed in this period were designed to evoke the ease of rural living, avoiding an institutional design to reflect changing attitudes in the treatment of the poor.
In colonial times, poverty was equated with deviancy, and the care of dependents was traditionally left to the Church, but by the 19th Century, governments across the United States began constructing state-run institutions to house the poor, infirm, mentally ill, and developmentally disabled. This was the era of the farm colonies, when able-bodied inmates were expected to work in exchange for their room and board.
200 residents could grow enough vegetables to feed 3,000, which was more than enough to share with other institutions across the city, including City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island. With the construction of several new dormitories in the 30s, the population quickly expanded to over 1,000, and started to exhibit a perplexing problem. As early as 1910, 75% of the residents were over 50, a quarter over 70, and the majority were unfit for manual labor.
By 1925, farm work was no longer mandatory, but many residents enjoyed the perks of voluntary farming and maintenance jobs. Tokens could be exchanged for tobacco, pipes, and candy, and those who worked got first priority in the dining hall. Anecdotes from the simple lives of this isolated community scatter the archives of the New York Times. Heated horseshoe rivalries, band performances, and handicraft sales were among the most prominent events of a life lived at the Farm Colony.
The Farm Colony was in many ways idyllic, but not without its controversies. Like all institutions in this period, the facility was guilty of overcrowding at times. In 1934, a hospitals commissioner was shocked to discover that many of the Colony’s 200 employees were habitually intoxicated, resulting in the resignation of the superintendent and his second in command. By the 1950s, the facility had become a geriatric hospital. The second half of the 20th Century marked a steady decline in residency. Increased prosperity nationwide and the introduction of social security further depleted the population, and the property was abandoned in 1975.
Though the area was designated a historic district in 1985, next to nothing has been done to protect the buildings. Thought to be hazardous to children playing at a nearby ballfield, a morgue was demolished in 1999, ruffling the feathers of the borough’s preservationists. The city has been trying to drum up interest in the site over the last decade, briefly considering it as the site of a new police academy, and shortlisting the Farm Colony as a possible location for a school of engineering, but they’ve repeatedly been unable to attract an interested party. City council member James Oddo, who called the Farm Colony the “bane of his existence”, made another appeal in 2012 for expressions of interest. Lack of access to mass transit may be partially to blame for the lack of response. As another piece of Staten Island’s architectural legacy falls to its knees, it serves as a reminder that a bureaucratic designation is less than half the battle.
Generations of vandalism have eviscerated the interiors of the Farm Colony’s remaining buildings. Inside, little has been left to catch the eye. Floors are strewn with rubble. Plaster dust accrues in drifts, exposing a patchwork of masonry. Wintry details complement the desolation—a broken windowpane bearded with icicles, hallways inundated with frozen pools. Juvenile graffiti covers every surface, except on the ground floors, where the building has been sealed off with cinderblocks in an unsuccessful attempt to keep out intruders. These corridors are intensely, eerily dark, and all but untraveled. Featherweight vines dangle from the ceilings of the blackest chambers like some alien weed. A single breath seems to cloud these rooms with fog, otherwise they’re empty. To find any artifacts one must head underground. Barely visible in the basement gloom, piles of old laundry bloom with mold, chairs are devoured by rust.
The Farm Colony may be decrepit, but don’t call it desolate. Even with temperatures below freezing, the grounds experience a weekend rush. If you plan to visit, be prepared to dodge a few paintballs, it’s one of the most popular pastimes here at the Colony. (Visitors have equipped the grounds with an elaborate field of obstacles pilfered from the buildings.) Elsewhere, the grounds are littered with all the tokens of a high school hangout. Beer cans, cigarette stubs, and junk food wrappers pave the walkways. At night, these lanes are crowded with teenagers, who’ve come to escape their parents and affirm their friendships by way of getting scared. Fearing boredom above all, they enter the Greenbelt ruins in spite of the warning of a cautionary tale.
Legends of a serial killer called Cropsey have spread through this part of Staten Island for as long as anyone can remember; it’s a fiction intwined with truth. The land surrounding the Farm Colony is haunted by a history of real-life horrors, starting in the 1920s with the abduction and murder of a seven-year-old boy, who some had seen walking into the woods with an elderly man on the day of his disappearance. (The crime prompted an investigation of Farm Colony residents and staff, but nothing turned up that could implicate anyone in the crime.)
Later, sinister abuses at the nearby Willowbrook State School for the developmentally disabled cast a pall over the area. Andre Rand, a former orderly at the facility, is thought to be responsible for a series of child murders that shocked the borough in the 70s and 80s. Rumor has it he lived in the tunnels under the abandoned hospital, and it’s confirmed that he set up camp on the grounds. In 1987, the body of Jennifer Shweiger was found buried in a shallow grave not far from his campsite. Most of Willowbrook was renovated and incorporated into the College of Staten Island in the 1990s. In the intervening years, the Farm Colony has taken its place in the collective imagination as the site most associated with the Cropsey legend.
The Farm Colony has never been open to the public, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a shared space. Though some would call it useless, ugly, or appalling, the youth of Staten Island has somehow endowed this place with meaning and mystique. Its value is written in the dust, just count the footprints. Through fogbanked mornings, orange autumns, and torrid summer nights, the Colony beckons—a wilderness in which to be wild, a victim to bear our destructive instincts, a place to harbor our fears, and face them.
For a closer look at the legends surrounding the Farm Colony and the case of Andre Rand, watch the documentary Cropsey, available on Netflix.
For more on New York City’s abandoned institutions, check out Letchworth Village:
Letchworth Village rests on a placid corner of rural Thiells, a hamlet west of Haverstraw set amid the gentle hills and vales of the surrounding Ramapos. A short stretch of modest farmhouses separates this former home for the mentally disabled from the serene Harriman State Park, New York’s second largest. Nature has been quick to reclaim its dominion over these unhallowed grounds, shrouding an unpleasant memory in a thick green veil. Abandonment becomes this “village of secrets,” intended from its inception to be unseen, forgotten, and silent as the tomb.
Owing to its reputed paranormal eccentricities, Letchworth Village has become a well-known subject of local legend. These strange tales had me spooked as I turned the corner onto Letchworth Village Road after a suspenseful two-hour drive from Brooklyn. Rounding a declining bend, I caught my first glimpse of Letchworth’s sprawling decay—some vine-encumbered ruin made momentarily visible through a stand of oak. Down the hazy horseshoe lanes of the boy’s ward, one by one, the ghosts came out.
By the end of 1911, the first phase of construction had completed on this 2,362 acre “state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded.” With architecture modeled after Monticello, the picturesque community was lauded as a model institution for the treatment of the developmentally disabled, a humane alternative to high-rise asylums, having been founded on several guiding principles that were revolutionary at the time.
The Minnisceongo Creek cuts the grounds in two, delineating areas for the two sexes which were meant never to mingle. Separate living and training facilities for children, able-bodied adults, and the infirm were not to exceed two stories or house over 70 inmates. Until the 1960s, the able-bodied labored on communal farms, raising enough food and livestock to feed the entire population.
Sinister by today’s standards, the “laboratory purpose” was another essential tenet of the Letchworth plan. Unable to give or deny consent, many children became unwitting test subjects—in 1950, the institution gained notoriety as the site of one of the first human trials of a still-experimental polio vaccine. Brain specimens were harvested from deceased residents and stored in jars of formaldehyde, put on display in the hospital lab. This horrific practice has become a favorite anecdote of ghost-hunters and adolescent explorers.
The well-intentioned plans for Letchworth Village didn’t hold up in practice, and by 1942, the population had swelled to twice its intended occupancy. From here, the severely underfunded facility fell into a lengthy decline. Many of the residents, whose condition necessitated ample time and attention for feeding, became seriously ill or malnourished as a result of overcrowding. At one point, over 500 patients slept on mattresses in hallways and dayrooms of the facility, meagerly attended by a completely overwhelmed staff tasked with the impossible.
Having discontinued the use of the majority of its structures, and relocated most of its charges into group homes, the institution closed down in 1996 as old methods of segregating the developmentally disabled were replaced with a trend toward normalization and inclusion into society. The state has made efforts to sell the property, with mixed results. Most of the dilapidated structures were slated for demolition in 2004 to make way for a 450-unit condo development, but the plan has evidently been put on hold. Ringed with ballfields and parking lots, shiny Fieldstone Middle School makes use of nine buildings of the former girl’s group, an island of promise in a landscape of failure.
Today, the rest of the neglected campus retains a kind of elegiac beauty. With its meandering walkways, pleasant natural setting, and evocative decay, it’s a peaceful spot for small town dog owners and amateur photographers alike, but by night a new breed of visitors descends upon these grounds.
Embarked on by the young and curious, a moonlit pilgrimage to a haunted location promises a brush with the unknown and an affirmation of courage—it’s a ritual that’s become commonplace at Letchworth Village. Pervasive graffiti and piles of beer cans and snack packaging mark the most popular hangouts. Much of the writing alludes to the institution’s allegedly horrific past, or warns of its vengeful spirits. Is it all just for teenage kicks, or are these acts of remembrance?
Within a crumbling fieldstone facade, one of Letchworth’s most impressive structures has been reduced to an ugly black skeleton. It’s the most evident of an outbreak of arson attempts that plagues the property, but not the most successful—some blazes don’t leave a trace. Perhaps without knowing it, these amateur arsonists, vandals, and spiritualists are quickly scouring away a shameful memory, absolving a collective guilt with paintballs, matchbooks, and pentagrams.
In a little-known and easy-to-miss cemetery about a mile from the facility, amends are being made more constructively.
Off Call Hollow Road, a new sign has been erected pointing out the “Old Letchworth Village Cemetery.” Down a seldom-traveled path, an unusual crop of T-shaped markers congregate on a dappled clearing. They’re graves, but they bear no names.
Few wished to remember their “defective” relatives, or have their family names inscribed in such a dishonorable cemetery—many family secrets are buried among these 900 deceased. Here, in the presence of so many human lives devalued, displaced, and forgotten, the sorrow of Letchworth Village is keenly felt.
As part of a movement taking place across the country, state agencies and advocates funded the installation of a permanent plaque inscribed with the names of these silent dead, and a fitting epitaph: “To Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten.”
More than ghost stories, bursts of cool air, shadows and slamming doors, we fear our capacity for cruelty and our willingness to overlook those who most needed our care and understanding. Letchworth Village isn’t a house of horrors, but it has become a thing of the past, and a symbol of these failings. Now, its ruins are vanishing—any moment, they’ll powder to dust, dirt, and ash. Who will mourn when the village crumbles, and what will remain? Soot-black foundations, half-remembered histories, and nine hundred numbered graves, poignant reminders of an all-too-recent injustice.