It seems that everyone in Cedar Grove, New Jersey has a spooky story or two about the Overbrook Asylum. Though it only closed down officially in 2007, the complex has long been home to abandoned buildings, and local lore has been quick to populate them with unexplained voices, vengeful spirits, and mysterious presences. Situated among public parks and residential neighborhoods, the decaying asylum known by many as “the Bin” has become a well-known hangout for teenagers, ghost hunters, scrappers, and other curious parties, much to the consternation of local law enforcement. In 2008, the local sheriff amped up police presence on the property, leading to 34 arrests over the course of 3 days, though it was rented out as a location for the tacky Travel Channel series “Ghost Adventures” the same year. Rumors of 24/7 surveillance still serve to ward off would-be trespassers, but on the gloomy Sunday morning I set out to explore the aging asylum, not a soul, living or dead, patrolled the 100-acre grounds of the old Essex County Hospital.
I won’t rehash the history here that most every American asylum shares. (For a more detailed account, read up on psychiatric treatments at Kings Park Psychiatric Center and the “farm colony” design of Letchworth Village.) Suffice it to say that the good intentions Overbrook was founded on in 1896 couldn’t hold up to the harsh realities of overcrowding and underfunding that characterized mid-20th century institutions. This dark period of neglect ended, for the most part, with the development of new “wonder drugs” for the treatment of serious mental disorders, which led to the abrupt closure of asylums across the country.
Though there’s little to differentiate the history of Overbrook Asylum from the dozens of similar institutions across the northeast, one particularly notorious episode stands out. On Dec 1st, 1917, the hospital’s heating and lighting plant broke down, sending temperatures plummeting inside the dormitories. As a cold snap hit New Jersey in the following weeks, 24 patients died as a result of or in conjunction with exposure, along with 32 cases of frostbite. In an act of desperation, the medical superintendent sent out letters to patient’s families in the hope that many would come to retrieve their relatives, who he admitted were living in “far from comfortable” conditions.
Even in the best times, “comfortable” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when describing the way of life of the thousands of mentally ill patients who called Overbrook home. An impressive amount of artifacts remain throughout the maze of interconnected dormitories, offering a look into the individual lives that make up its collectively tragic history. At every turn, large-scale photo murals of nature scenes and wildlife adorn the beige and sea foam walls of the wards. Elsewhere, holiday decorations clutter the floor. Stockpiled in cabinets are jolly snowmen, grinning halloween skulls, festive scarecrows, and gleaming easter bunnies, anything to distract from the clinical gloom of the wards. Out of the clustered piles of clothing, medical supplies, and craft projects, the terse, impersonal lines of a handwritten card speak volumes on the isolation of the unfortunate men and women who spent their lives forgotten behind asylum walls: “Dear John, I hope you are well and happy. I’m feeling okay. Miss you. Love, Mom.”
The decrepit hospital closed down in 2007 when a new state of the art facility opened up nearby, which still operates today. By that time much of the property had already been long abandoned, with a dwindling patient population due in large part to the effective treatments developed in the 60s and 70s, as well as the pressure to discharge anyone who wasn’t a threat to themselves or others, no matter how unprepared they were to get by on their own in the outside world. Contrary to a few adamant commenters in online forums, most of the Overbrook campus is still standing on the east side of Fairview Avenue. A development plan to demolish the complex soon after it closed in 2007 would have brought 78 luxury single family homes to the area, but it never panned out. Today, the property is county-owned. Though plans were put in place to convert the land to a public park in 2008, little progress has been made in that regard.
As Overbrook continues to crumble, the treatment of the mentally ill has been making headlines in recent months, and it’s troubling to see the same familiar patterns play out in an even more brutal setting—the prisons cells and solitary confinement units where many of today’s mentally ill end up. A recent article in the New York Times outlines a harrowing study of an epidemic of violence toward mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island which rivals the worst cases of abuse in the age of institutions. Earlier this week, a positive step was made on the West Coast, where the California Department of Corrections has introduced new standards for the treatment of the mentally ill living in the prison system. Here’s hoping this results in legitimate changes that can be instituted across the country.
(I’m trying out a new way to display photos, which will show them a bit larger. Click on any image to jump to a full screen slideshow, you can also comment on individual images if you like.)
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.
In Queens Village, mere inches of brick and mortar separate the world we know from one of the strangest places in the city. Creedmoor Psychiatric Center’s Building 25 has undergone something of a transformation over its 40 years of neglect, but it couldn’t have done it alone. Once a haven for New York’s cast-out mentally ill, the long-abandoned ward is very much inhabited today…
Creedmoor was founded in 1912 as the Farm Colony of Brooklyn State Hospital, one of hundreds of similar psychiatric wards established 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 their best bet for rehabilitation.
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. Creedmoor State Hospital was habitually under scrutiny during this period, beginning in the 1940s with an outbreak of dysentery that resulted from unsanitary living conditions in the wards.
The hospital had spiraled completely out of control by 1974 when the state ordered an inquiry into an outbreak of crime on the Creedmoor campus. Within 20 months, three rapes were reported, 22 assaults, 52 fires, 130 burglaries, six instances of suicide, a shooting, a riot, and an attempted murder, prompting an investigation into all downstate mental hospitals. As late as 1984, the violent ward of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center was rocked with scandal following the death of a patient, who had been struck in the throat by a staff member while restrained in a straitjacket.
In the late 20th Century, the development of antipsychotic medications and new standards of treatment for the mentally ill accelerated a trend toward 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, leaving its turbulent past behind. Many of the buildings have been sold off to new tenants. Others, like Building 25, lie fallow.
The building was an active ward until some time in the 1970s, and retains many mementos from its days as a residence and treatment center for the mentally ill. With peeling paint, dusty furniture, and dark corridors, the lower floors are typical of a long-abandoned hospital, but upstairs, the effect of time has taken a grotesque turn.
The smell alone is enough to drive anyone to the verge of madness, but the visual is even more appalling. For 40 years, generations of pigeons have defecated on the fourth floor of Building 25, far removed from their dim-witted dealings with the human world, assembling a monument all their own. Guano accumulates in grey mounds under popular roosts, with the tallest columns reaching several feet in height. Like the myriad formations of a cavern, Buiding 25’s guano stalagmites are a work in progress—pigeons roost at every turn, and they’re awfully dubious of outsiders. Violent outbursts of flight punctuate an otherworldly soundscape of low, rumbling coos. The filth acts as an acoustic insulator, making every movement impossibly close.
Two levels down and a world away from the top floor, a kitchen is filled with years’ worth of garbage intersected by narrow pathways. A living room, kept relatively tidy, features a sitting area with an array of chairs, including a homemade toilet. Loosely organized objects litter every surface—toiletries, clothing, hundreds of dead D batteries. Some of the belongings looked as if they hadn’t been touched for decades, but a newspaper dated to only a few weeks before confirmed my suspicion that someone was still living here.
I found him snoozing peacefully in a light-filled dayroom, surrounded by a series of patient murals. Once painted over, images of faraway lands, country gardens, and the Holy Mother are coming to light again as time peels back the layers. The image was surprising, unforgettably human, and imprudent to photograph. Declining to introduce myself, I passed once more through the dark, decaying halls of Building 25, leaving its charms, horrors, and mysteries for the birds. Back on solid ground, its impression wouldn’t fade for months—Building 25 has a way of recurring in dreams…
I wasn’t able to track down any information on the function of this obscure outbuilding of the Bayley Seton Hospital complex in Stapleton, SI. The austere, three-story edifice is the only abandoned structure within the active section of Bayley Seton, situated on the northeast corner of the grounds behind the main building. The rest are fenced off and awaiting demolition after being sold to make way for a new development—it’s likely that this building may hang on for a bit longer.
For a detailed history of Bayley Seton Hospital, refer to my last post on the Nurses’ Residence.
If you have any information on this building, please enlighten me in the comments below.
A floundering medical complex sits on a 20-acre campus in Stapleton on the North Shore of Staten Island. Today, eight of Bayley Seton Hospital’s twelve buildings lie abandoned, the largest being the old Nurses’ Residence at its southeast corner.
The grounds of BSH house Staten Island’s first hospital, an historic colonnaded structure built in the 1830s to serve ailing retired naval and merchant sailors, appropriately named “the Seamen’s Retreat.” Change came to the site in 1858 when a mob of 30-40 prominent locals attacked and burned down the Port of New York Quarantine Hospital, located a mile north of the Retreat. Though this horrific incident was incensed by an outbreak of yellow fever the locals blamed on the nearby hospital, flagrant racism was most likely a factor—recent immigrants made up the majority of the hospital’s population.
Some of the quarantine station’s services were transferred to areas of what is now Bayley Seton Hospital, and placed under the jurisdiction of the Marine Hospital Service, which by 1885 controlled the entire complex, and by 1902 had been renamed the US Public Health Service. In the 1930s, President Roosevelt started a campaign to revitalize The Public Health Service Hospitals, resulting in the construction of the main seven-story art-deco building and its offshoot Nurses’ Residence, a winged four-story structure on the southeast corner of the property.
The hospital was sold to the Sisters of Charity of New York, a Catholic healthcare organization, in 1980. At this point the U.S. Health Service Hospital was renamed after Sisters’ founder Elizabeth Seton and her father Richard Bayley (who coincidentally once headed the ill-fated Thompkinsville Quarantine Hospital.) Under the Sisters of Charity, the hospital was predominantly used to treat mental disorders and substance abuse, and continues to fulfill this role today, albeit at a greatly diminished capacity.
In 2000, The Sisters of Charity turned over Bayley Seton to the related Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center, which faced financial troubles at the Stapleton campus from the beginning. Over half of its services were suspended and the hospital fell into an inexorable decline. Plans to close Bayley Seton emerged in 2004 as Saint Vincent’s, once the largest Catholic Health organization in New York, filed for bankruptcy with a debt of over a billion dollars. At some point during this tumultuous period (artifacts point to the building last being inhabited in 2002,) the former Nurses’ Residence, which had most recently been used as a New York addiction treatment facility, was abandoned as part of an ongoing series of downsizings and closures.
In 2009, The Salvation Army settled on a 7.6 million dollar deal to purchase 7 acres of BSH. Originally, plans called for the construction of a 120,000 square-foot community center in the footstep of the Nurses’ Residence, set to begin in 2011, followed by a two-year period to terminate Bayley Seton’s remaining services, after which the main building would also be converted into senior housing. If it’s ever built, the center will be one of 30 similar complexes across the country funded by a 1.5 billion dollar endowment by the late Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. The Salvation Army failed to raise the 25 million needed to cover the difference between its cut of the Kroc endowment and the projected cost of construction, and ground has yet to be broken.
Twelve foot chain link fences have been placed along the perimeter of the Salvation Army property, but the site is otherwise untouched. Fenced-off and boarded-up, the Nurses’ Home ages in secret. Walls molt through layers of colored paint under tumbledown ceilings. The unrecognizable contents of a half-dozen milk cartons fester in a neglected refrigerator. An upright piano keeps mum in an empty common room while activity slows to a trickle on the rest of the Bayley Seton Hospital campus. Here and there, artifacts remain—painted crafts, motivational posters, hand-drawn cartoons—evoking the human element of the hospital’s better days. With its subtle architectural charms, the Nurses’ Residence has little hope of being saved from the wrecking ball, (though a few conservationists are out to change that.) Those in power seem to agree—despite centuries of convoluted history, it’s time to pull the plug on Bayley Seton Hospital.
For more photos of Bayley Seton Hospital’s abandonments, go on to PART II.