In 1831, “An Act to Provide for Sick and Disabled Seamen” was passed by the New York State Legislature. A tract of farmland was acquired for the purpose, and by 1837, a proper hospital was constructed, funded by a head-tax imposed on sailors entering the Port of New York. The intention was admirable and the structure was impressive. Looking at the distinctively 19th-century facade of the old Sailor’s Infirmary today, it’s easy to imagine the place brimming with leathery old salts in their twilight years, regaling each other with adventures at sea that’d put Herman Melville to shame.
In those days, the porticos of the Infirmary offered commanding views of the New York Harbor and the surrounding countryside. In 1862, the Infirmary’s Chief Physician rhapsodized on the subject: “the weary invalid can breathe the bracing air of the sea…the sight of his chosen element, covered with the white winged messengers of a world-wide commerce that fills his mind with hope and cheer.”
Today, its pastoral surroundings have been swallowed up by development, the “white-winged messengers” have vanished from the harbor, and the halls of the hospital no longer resound with tales of youthful exploits in the exotic port cities of the world. Instead, a fire alarm near the front door blares interminably, to nobody at all.
While the idea of a hospital for sailors might seem odd to the modern observer, there was an urgent need for this sort of specialized care in the 19th century, when sailing was a much more common occupation and working conditions were deplorable. The Infirmary’s first Chief Physician described the health of a newly admitted patient in 1838 as such: “Arrived last night on brig from round Cape Horn…Has been to sea 118 days and had nothing but indifferent salt food to feed upon…Twenty days after sailing his gums became sore and spongy and bled very freely…Around the small of each leg caked hard and over the instep a deep blue almost black color…Suffered universal pain…Very much prostrated and emaciated and was brought into the (Infirmary)…Had no lime juice on board nor any other antiscorbutic effectual in preventing scurvy…It is in this shameful manner vessels are provided to the destruction of seamen…An object of pity to behold.”
In addition to advocating for better living and working conditions for seamen, the Sailor’s Infirmary made a lasting impact on world health as the birthplace of one of the most formidable biomedical research facilities in the world. In 1887, a young doctor founded a one-room bacteriological laboratory in the attic of the hospital to investigate epidemics like cholera and yellow fever. Over the course of the 20th century, his humble “Laboratory of Hygiene” evolved into a federally-funded research initiative that still operates today with an annual budget of $30 billion. Needless to say, it outgrew the attic long ago.
Over the course of the 20th century the infirmary greatly expanded its services, and the campus grew to include a seven-story hospital and multiple ancillary buildings, dwarfing the original structure in the process. Under federal ownership, the grounds served military families, veterans, and later the general public. An organization of the Catholic medical system took over in 1981, and the hospital’s focus pivoted to psychiatric care and addiction rehabilitation. In recent years, the campus has been racked with financial problems, and its services have been consolidated to a few floors of the main hospital building. The rest of the complex sits abandoned, facing an uncertain future despite multiple landmark designations.
Like many grand, old buildings, the 1837 Infirmary appears to have been shut down from the top down. Dental clinics and early childhood programs lingered into the early 2000s on the lower floors, while the top floor sat unused for decades. Today, the interior is largely empty and plain—drop ceilings and fluorescent lights abound. But the attic retains a much older patina, and a few odd relics that feel fantastically out of step with the modern trappings below.
(Note: This is one of those rare abandoned buildings that isn’t vandalized beyond all recognition. In the hopes of keeping it that way I’ve chosen not to disclose its actual name and location, or to identify some key elements of its history.)
In other news… I’ve got a new website that just went live. Head over to www.willellisphoto.com for a look at some of my other photo projects, plus a sampling of the work I do for a living (shooting non-abandoned architecture and interiors.) You can also sign up for my newsletter if you’re so inclined, or buy a book. (They’re 10% OFF with the code “ANYC.”)
Old buildings have many lives. Often the objects left behind in a modern ruin only reflect a place’s most recent iteration. But in Rockland County, one structure exists as a veritable nesting doll of time periods. Today, some areas of the abandoned Children’s Hospital at Rockland Psychiatric Center are unsettlingly modern, looking like a tornado swept through a present-day kindergarten classroom. But stepping from one room to the next can take you back another 10, 20, 30 years…
The squat, maze-like ward was constructed in 1929 to house the youngest subset of Rockland State Hospital’s population. (The history of the institution and its notable bowling alley were outlined in a previous post.) Though it hasn’t been used to house mentally ill children since the 1960s and 70s, it continued to serve the needs of kids and families in recent decades. Beginning in the 1980s it was used as a day care center for children of RPC employees called “Kid’s Corner.” In 1998, sections of the building were used for a program called “Under the Weather,” which provided free care to moderately sick kids, enabling their parents to get back to work while their children recuperated. These valuable programs were abruptly closed by the Department of Mental Health in 2008 for budgetary reasons.
All of these developments can be traced through the hospital’s extensive collection of murals. They vary greatly in quality and subject matter, but all represent a concerted effort by founders and staff to brighten up the institutional halls over the years. The finest of them is a series of thoughtfully designed and obviously professional works depicting scenes from the tales of Washington Irving. These and a similar set depicting the four seasons were painted in the 1940s by the Works Progress Administration muralist Victor Pedrotti Trent. Much of the work is well-preserved, but some areas have suffered irreparable water damage. Years ago a study estimated that moving and restoring the paintings would cost $100,000, a prohibitive figure. Since then, there’s been little interest in preserving them.
The building is the oldest of several structures on the campus that catered to children with psychiatric disorders. A modern children’s center is still in operation at Rockland Psych, and another built in the 1960s is currently being leased as a filming location for the hit Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” standing in for the women’s prison depicted in the series. The 1929 hospital was slated for demolition years ago, but that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.
Though much of the building is crowded with modern-day kid stuff, some wings of the structure–namely the former boy’s ward–appear to have been walled off during the 80s and 90s. Those halls are largely empty, and the few artifacts left behind are far older and institutional in nature. I wonder if the youngsters at Kid’s Corner realized there was a children’s asylum ward preserved like a mosquito in amber just on the other side of their playroom…
IN OTHER NEWS… I’ve had a few spots open up on a tour of Dead Horse Bay I’ll be leading this weekend. It will take place Sunday, November 8th and we’ll be meeting at 10AM. It’s short notice, but I’d be happy to have a few more folks join in! Tickets available at this link.
ALSO… I’m excited to announce Abandoned NYC just went into its second printing! Thanks to all who helped me reach this milestone by ordering a book, showing up to events, and supporting the blog. To those who haven’t gotten their hands on a copy, get your signed first edition while supplies last!
In 1923, the New York state legislature passed a $50 million bond issue for the construction of new mental hospitals. After a disastrous fire at Ward’s Island in 1924, “where scores of mentally afflicted…were burned to death,” $11 million was set aside for a new campus designed specifically to relieve overcrowding at institutions in New York City. The town of Orangeburg, NY was chosen for its proximity to the five boroughs, picturesque surroundings, and “salubrious climate.”
With funding in place, the construction of the Rockland State Hospital for the Insane moved forward at a staggering pace. Townspeople looked on as the monstrous institution swallowed up tract after tract of farms, houses, and undeveloped land. As patients flooded into the new buildings by the thousands, escapes became a regular occurrence. The “potential menace” of this “new and formidable population of undesirable outsiders” was a cause of great concern for locals. Infrequent but grisly murders in the vicinity of the hospital were attributed to “mentally disturbed” escapees. But the real horrors were occurring on the inside, as many of Orangeburg’s citizens could personally attest to–the institution was one of the largest job providers in the county.
The real trouble started during World War II, when lucrative war industry jobs lured much of the staff away and a large number of Rockland’s male attendants left to join the armed forces. As the population soared to nearly 9,000, patient-to-staff ratios plummeted. “The work is hard, disagreeable and frequently dangerous, and the hospital has found it next to impossible to recruit employees.” New hires during this period were often untrained and unqualified. From a 1940s Times article: “An employment bureau in New York City sent a number of applicants here, but most of them were found to be suffering from arthritis, cardiac ailments or “unnatural” temperament and had to be sent home. ‘Some of them should be patients,’ Dr. Blaisdell said.”
Like most all institutions operating during this period, the overcrowding and lack of effective treatment led to systemic abuse and negligence. Until the development of antipsychotic drugs in the 1960s, shock therapy and lobotomy were the only treatment methods available for severe cases of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. As the century progressed and the new drugs became readily available, most patients were able to live independently outside of the asylum system. Since the 1970s, Rockland Psychiatric Center (as it is now known) has predominantly been used as an outpatient facility. By 1999 it housed less than 600 patients. Several new facilities were constructed in more recent years for outpatient care, but vast expanses of the 600 acre campus are entirely empty.
Today, a grid of overgrown streets divides a vast configuration of maze-like buildings known only by number. These were separate wards for men, women, children, and other subsets of the population like the infirm, the violent, and the criminally insane. Others were workshops, auditoriums, power plants, administration buildings, staff housing… the list goes on and on.
Exploring the buildings can be confusing and perilous. One ward’s heavy wooden doors had the nasty habit of slamming shut and refusing to open again, which can be a serious situation when there’s only one or two ways out. My solution was a series of improvised doorstops–beer cans, scraps of debris, whatever I could get my hands on–which doubled as a trail of breadcrumbs to give me a reasonable hope of finding my way out again.
One of Rockland’s most interesting features is the old four lane bowling alley. It’s a heavily trafficked area full of tempting props. Pins, balls, shoes, and trophies have been endlessly moved around, manipulated, and arranged into perfect triangles in the middle of the lanes. While I don’t blame fellow photographers for this sort of thing, it can be disappointing to walk into something that looks more like a stage set than a wild, unpredictable ruin. I’ll take that over the mindless graffiti–some if which I removed with a little Photoshop magic in the images below.
Despite all the modern mischief making, the bowling alley represents the best intentions of the institution to provide quality of life to patients who spent their lives at Rockland. These lanes must have been a welcome distraction from the monotony of asylum living.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the Rockland Children’s Hospital, which features an impressive collection of WPA murals.
At the turn of the twentieth century, tuberculosis was the second leading cause of death in the city and a major world health concern known to disproportionately affect the urban poor. In New York City, two-thirds of the 30,000 afflicted were dependent on city agencies for treatment. Growing concern from charitable organizations spurred the establishment of New York’s first public hospital designed exclusively to treat tuberculosis, care for the “sick, poor, and friendless,” and keep the epidemic under some measure of control by isolating sufferers from general hospitals. If you were diagnosed with tuberculosis in the early 1900s, your prognosis was grim. Lacking a cure, the only treatments thought to ease symptoms were fresh air, rest, sunshine, and good nutrition. A pleasant view was also considered essential for staving off depression. For this reason, hospital planners settled on a privately owned 25-acre hilltop parcel in rural Staten Island called “Ocean View,” just across from the already established New York City Farm Colony.
The plot was surrounded by a vast expanse of forested land (known as the Greenbelt today) which enabled the hospital grounds to expand as necessary. When Sea View Hospital was dedicated on November 12, 1913, the New York Times called it “the largest and finest hospital ever built for the care and treatment of those who suffer from tuberculosis.” The Commissioner of Public Charities claimed it was “a magnificent institution that is vast, ingenious, practical, convenient, sanitary, and beautiful, the greatest hospital ever planned in the world wide fight against the “white plague.” Though the new facilities effectively eased the suffering of tuberculosis patients and provided housing for the poor, little could be done to actually save lives in the long term. Most eventually succumbed to the disease.
In 1943, the development of the antibiotic streptomycin at Rutgers University led to a series of breakthroughs in the treatment of tuberculosis over the next decade, and much of that research took place at Sea View Hospital. The enthusiasm over these dramatic developments is captured in a 1952 report by the Department of Hospitals: “Euphoria swept Seaview Hospital. Patients consigned to death at the hands of the White Plague celebrated a new lease on life by dancing in the halls.” The transition was swift. By 1961, Sea View’s pavilions were practically emptied as patients miraculously recovered as a result of the new therapies. Today, a long-term care facility operates in several of the buildings and some structures have been repurposed by community agencies and civic groups, but much of the Sea View Hospital campus lies abandoned.
Past a fenced enclosure delineating the active section of the hospital, the grounds give way to the bramble-choked wilds of the Staten Island Greenbelt. The creepy ruins of the old women’s pavilions situated on the northern border are a popular detour on hikes from the neighboring boy scout camp. To the east lies the imposing Children’s Hospital, completed in 1938 and abandoned in 1974. Its spacious, window-lined solariums are typical of earlier Sea View wards, flanked on either side by open-air porches which were occupied by recovering patients 24 hours a day during the height of the epidemic. In an otherwise clinical Landmarks Preservation Commission report published in 1985, the researcher notes that “the building rises from a deep slope… Wooded surroundings, particularly dense to the east and south of the building, enhance the sense of isolation.” The view he’s describing is indeed one of New York City’s most surreal (pictured below in 2012).
Reuse of the structure seems extremely unlikely given the large number of abandoned buildings within the active hospital complex that would make better candidates for restoration. Area conservationists are fighting to keep the surrounding woodlands protected from developers by making it a permanent part of the Greenbelt network of natural areas, and the building itself is nominally protected from demolition as part of Sea View Hospital’s historic district designation. That doesn’t mean that the building won’t serve a purpose as it continues to crumble. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Staten Island teenagers have a long history of voraciously exploring (and vandalizing) their local ruins. With the renovation of the Willowbrook State School in the 1990s, the later demolition of the Staten Island Monastery, and the impending restoration of the New York City Farm Colony, the isolated, under-the-radar Children’s Hospital may be next in line as the site of that requisite rite of passage. Only time will tell.
IN OTHER NEWS… my friend Oriana Leckert‘s book “Brooklyn Spaces” is out this week. We’re a bit like kindred spirits, Oriana and I, but she goes more for the crowded, lively, and creative than the empty, eerie, and decrepit. The (50!) places profiled in the book show the authentic, human side of the global phenomenon that is “Brooklyn cool,” highlighting the heartfelt endeavors of a wave of culture makers that migrated to the borough for cheap rent and fashioned a network of bustling performance venues, art enclaves, and meeting places out of Brooklyn’s post-industrial landscape. Her obvious passion for offbeat museums, community gardens, communal living spaces, and out-there artist residencies is beyond infectious. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy! And head to what I’m sure will be a raucous, sweaty launch party on May 30th.
I outlined New Jersey’s Essex County Hospital in a previous post, but a few months back I made it out a second time to explore a little further. I ended up in the tunnels underneath the wards, where I found a file room stuffed with material dating from the 1930s to the 1980s, near the last years of Essex County Hospital’s operation. The records are scattered in cardboard boxes with no apparent system of organization, many of them overtaken with mold and rot.
Much of what’s been left here is mundane, day-to-day operational notes on staff, time sheets, and maintenance, but some of it is rather enlightening. There are decades’ worth of doctor’s notes, admission records, and log books detailing the daily activities of individual residents, some describe a patient’s entire life story in a single paragraph. The scale of it is truly overwhelming when you start flipping through the files page by page.
As I’ve mentioned before, many of the patterns of neglect well-documented in the age of institutions have shifted to the criminal justice system today. In New York City, the mentally ill now account for 40% of the prison population. To make matters worse, an epidemic of violence against mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island came to light this summer, causing an uproar. Now, the de Blasio administration is pushing for a major $130 million initiative that strikes at the heart of the problem, aiming to keep repeat low-level offenders out of prison and get them into treatment programs. From the Times article: “The changes include tripling the size of both pretrial diversion programs and the amount of resources devoted to easing the transition from jail back into society. This would represent a significantly different approach to criminal justice in the city, experts said. But they cautioned that nothing of such scale had been tried by a municipality before, and that putting the plan into effect would be difficult.”
As we look forward, it’s worth taking a moment to look back. What follows is a tiny sampling of the massive amount of records, artifacts, and ephemera left behind in the wards of Essex County Hospital and that moldy file room in the basement. You can read for yourself, just click to enlarge.
For 124 years, a castle with many names loomed over the quiet neighborhood of Thompkinsville, Staten Island. Perched on a six-acre hilltop covered in creeping vines, the striking red brick chateau could have been the backdrop of a fairy tale until thirty years of neglect made it the perfect setting for a Gothic horror. On an early March morning in 2012 while most of the island slept, wrecking balls converged at the Frost Memorial Tower of the old Samuel R. Smith Infirmary. In a matter of hours, the hospital was brought to the ground. Dozens gathered to watch her fall.
Today, the rubble-strewn lot is a symbol of lost history and lost hope for members of the Preservation League of Staten Island and their supporters, whose passionate and repeated efforts to save the building did little to sway the resolve of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. City engineers who inspected the structure confirmed that the building was in a state of progressive collapse, and would have proven a hazard to firefighters entering the building in the event of a blaze.
Named for a doctor who dedicated his life to the treatment of the poor, the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary was founded in 1863 as the borough’s first private hospital. Principally funded by lavish charity balls, the organization was the pet project of the borough’s high society, known as the “Pride of Staten Island.” By the turn of the twentieth century, the Infirmary had outgrown its former home, and the cornerstone was laid for a new building, named the Frost Memorial Tower in honor of the wealthy benefactor who had gifted the hilly plot of land. It was destined to become one of Staten Island’s stateliest buildings.
Though the Smith Infirmary was established for the poor, it soon opened its doors to the general public and was renamed Staten Island Hospital in 1916. Many notable actors, lawyers, and political figures were treated there, among more mysterious cases. In 1907, an Infirmary doctor was murdered by the husband of a former patient who had passed away during an operation. The damning evidence that led to the man’s execution is still visible in Cypress Hills Cemetery. On his wife’s grave is the following epitaph: “Revenge renews our happy love in heaven forever.”
By 1974, the once-rural land surrounding the complex had become densely populated, leaving little room for expansion. At the time, one hundred patients were waiting daily for admission, and parking had become a serious problem. The campus was abandoned in 1979 when the hospital relocated to a new building on Seaview Avenue.
In 1983, the Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to designate the Smith Infirmary’s signature building despite its architectural and historical significance. In what had become a rough neighborhood, the derelict hospital quickly gained a reputation for illicit activities, and landmark status was likely to hamper redevelopment. The land was targeted early on for a series of residential development schemes that never came to fruition. As the building deteriorated, the property became a hotbed of real estate fraud and a haven for the neighborhood homeless, but many held fond feelings for the structure—locals called it “the Castle.”
Through 33 years of abandonment, the degraded walls, slumping ceilings, and precarious floors of the Infirmary were utterly devastated by the elements. The smell of mold and rot permeated the interior. Wind blustered through its second floor landing, causing boards and debris to smack and rattle at odd intervals. These were the dying breaths of a squandered architectural treasure. Rest in pieces, Staten Island Castle.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most New Yorkers have never heard of North Brother Island, but they should take comfort in the fact that new trees are growing and manmade things are going by the wayside just a stone’s throw from Rikers and a few miles from LaGuardia Airport. New York City’s abandoned island proves that as much as we think we have a handle on things, nature is never far behind. Just give it time.
In the case of North Brother Island, it took fifty years to transform a sparsely planted hospital campus to a bona fide wildlife sanctuary surging with fresh green life. Established as a city hospital for quarantinable diseases in 1885, it became a disreputable rehab center for adolescent drug addicts prior to its abandonment in the 1960s. To add to the intrigue, the island was the site of a catastrophic shipwreck and the residence of the notorious Typhoid Mary. (For a detailed history of Riverside Hospital, see Ian Ference’s thorough account over at the Kingston Lounge.) Today, opportunistic ivy floods the old lawns and races up the corners of the dormitories. Elsewhere, invasive kudzu—a Japanese import—holds at least an acre of land in its leafy grip. Few animals roam this untrodden landscape, with the exception of a handful of raccoons that took a dip in the East River and discovered the greenest place around.
Even though it’s one of the least inhabited places in New York City, you can still find pathways on North Brother Island. Parks employees and occasional visitors leave a network of rabbit trails on the forest floor, but they taper off on the south side, where a few ruins beckon you further into the weeds. I trudged through the brush for over an hour only to end up right back where I started, and it wouldn’t be the last time I was forced to admit defeat to the thorny wilds of Riverside Hospital. The island plays tricks on you, but it’s liberating to lose your way.
In order to protect the habitat and visitors from harm, North Brother Island is permanently closed to the public, and strictly off-limits during nesting season. Frequently patrolled due to its vicinity to Rikers, it’s known as one of the most difficult places in New York City to get to, which makes it an object of equal frustration and fascination for urban explorers near and far. (I was lucky enough to accompany a photographer with a long relationship with the Parks Department and a buddy with a boat—one or both are pretty essential if you’re trying to get here.)
If you never make it to North Brother Island, take heart in the fact that it’s best appreciated from afar, where distance allows the imagination to fill in the obscured reaches beneath its canopy and populate the crumbling towers visible on its shore. An abandoned island is the most natural thing in the world to romanticize, but in the light of day, the enigma dissolves. As menacing as the old buildings may appear, they’re ultimately indifferent.
But at day’s end, the sun slips low on the horizon and the ruins of Riverside Hospital begin to gleam. Our boat departs just as the light approaches a kind of golden splendor before winking into darkness. Receding from view as you near Barretto Point at sunset, North Brother Island regains a bit of its mystery. Come to think of it, no one’s ever been permitted to go there after dark…