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:
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.
For 120 years, a castle with many names loomed over the quiet nabe of New Brighton, Staten Island. Perched on a 6 acre hilltop covered with dead creeping vines, the “S. I. Castle,” officially the Frost Memorial Tower of the old Samuel R. Smith Infirmary, which was later renamed Staten Island Hospital, appears to be the quintessential haunted house. You mightn’t expect its history as a flourishing charity-driven hospital for the underprivledged and a point of pride for the Staten Island community.
Today, the empty rubble-strewn lot lingers as a symbol of lost history, and lost hope, for members of the Preservation League of Staten Island and their supporters, whose generations of passionate and repeated efforts to save the building, and promote its designation as a New York City Landmark, have fallen on the deaf ears of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Unannounced, the city demolished the striking Romanesque Revival structure in early March, asserting that the building was in a state of “progressive collapse.”
Touring the Smith Infirmary only 4 weeks before its fateful demolition, I can say that the decision was warranted. Through 33 years of abandonment, the degraded walls, slumping ceilings, and precarious floors of the infirmary became an appealing canvas for graffiti artists, a haven for squatters, drug addicts, and arsonists, and ultimately, a neighborhood hazard.
Crossing paths with an unassuming homeless man hauling a large piece of lumber, I made my way through the weedy, brick-covered lot to a shuttering board on the west side of the building. The smell of mold and rot permeated the ravaged interior. Wind blustered through its second floor landing, causing boards and debris to smack and rattle at odd intervals. As one of the last people to set foot inside the Frost Memorial Tower, I witnessed a shameful record of neglect that calls into question the value and mission of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. These pictures document the dying breaths of a squandered architectural and historical treasure. Rest in pieces, S.I. Castle.
Do you know how to get to Staten Island’s most remarkable graveyard? First pass through a centuries-old roadside cemetery, (consisting of a handful of horribly eroded grave markers). Follow a barely there garbage-strewn path down to the marshy Arthur Kill (kill is the Dutch word for creek, which explains why creepy names like “Fresh Kills” abound in the Dutch-settled Hudson River Valley.) Once your feet are sinking a few inches into the mud with every step, you’ll start seeing the boats. Some over a century old, steam vessels, warships, ferries, fireboats, the final vestiges of New York’s shipping era, doomed to die here in a catastrophically polluted Staten Island waterway. Welcome to the Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard.
Operational since the 1930s, Witte’s Marine Equipment company in Rossville served to dredge, salvage, and resell materials from the wrecked and disused vessels of the New York and New Jersey waterways. Eccentric owner John J. Witte refused to dismantle the majority of the ships that came to rest in the yard, amassing a prodigious collection of over 400 historic watercraft. As the ships slowly decomposed and the area gained a reputation as a mecca for artists and photographers, Witte gained his own reputation as a ferocious defender of his property, known for scaring off unsolicited visitors personally until he passed away in 1980. The yard is now controlled by the Donjon Marine Company, which seems to be taking a more proactive approach to actually salvaging materials from the wrecks and keeping the curious out, erecting 12-foot metal walls around the perimeter of the yard with signs prohibiting any and all photography.
The walls presented an obstacle, but after several muddy minutes I made it to the Arthur Kill Shore. Though the shipyard had lost most of its former glory, the remaining 20-40 wrecks were still an eldritch sight to behold—half submerged in years of muck, leaning at odd angles, corroded in streaks of rust, putrefying elbow to elbow with massive skeleton hulls. These wade out their final days in the boneyard before being stripped and recycled into automobiles and refrigerators. So see them while you can, if you dare, what was once the city’s premiere collection of nautical artifacts is sinking fast.