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.
Many of the most remarkable abandoned buildings loom over their surroundings and dominate the landscape, but Newark’s Old Essex County Jail is barely there. Much of the structure is walled off behind a twelve foot barrier, and all that rises above it is difficult to discern through the overgrowth. On the grounds, the building remains obfuscated, half in ruins and only visible in parts, with an absence of any unifying architectural feature. Inside, its footprint is no less disorienting, resulting from a series of haphazard additions made at the turn of the 20th century as the jail’s population increased. Unlike the comforting symmetry of asylum wards, the whole disordered mass seems to be governed by a bizarre dream logic, made all the more sinister by the fact that you can’t look the building in the face.
The jail is known as a haven for “crackheads,” and it’s absolutely filled with garbage and drug paraphernalia, some old, some new. When I first visited a couple of years ago, we had only been inside for a few minutes when the place started coming to life around us, first clanks and creaks, then voices and shadowy figures walking by in the hallways. It wasn’t my decision to leave that day before we came face to face with anyone, but I didn’t put up much of a fight. As sympathetic as I felt toward these unfortunates, I figured that anyone voluntarily residing in an abandoned prison cell was in a desperate situation with very little to lose.
The original building was constructed in 1837 and planned according to the “Pennsylvania system” of incarceration, which was characterized by solitary confinement and an emphasis on rehabilitation over manual labor and corporal punishment. It’s one of the lesser works of the distinguished British architect John Haviland, who is better known for the revolutionary design of Eastern State Penitentiary. Through the early 1900s the Essex County Jail expanded to a capacity of 300. It was replaced by a new facility in 1970 and subsequently occupied by the county’s Bureau of Narcotics until 1989, when the building was deemed unsafe. In 2001, a catastrophic fire destroyed much of the structure. Reports of the place being inhabited by the homeless go back to the 1990s.
Two years after my first trip to the Essex County Jail, I came back with the resolve to see things through and a new exploring buddy. It had rained overnight and the constant dripping sounded just like footsteps, but otherwise the place seemed deserted. Objects left behind by recent inhabitants overshadowed any artifacts from the building’s early history, with garbage middens clustered in almost every cell. An hour or so in, I had my first anticlimactic encounter with a squatter, who greeted me politely and went about his business. Over the course of the morning, two others walked past me without saying a word. As scary as the place was, there were no monsters or maniacs living here, just a few people looking for a place to be left alone, finding a bleak kind of freedom in the most unlikely of places.
Let me be the first to point out that the Brooklyn Army Terminal is far from abandoned. It’s actually one of the most vibrant hubs of industry remaining on a Brooklyn waterfront that was once dominated by factories, warehouses, and refineries, many of which have fallen into decay or been renovated into luxury condos. Along with the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the neighboring Bush Terminal, and nearby Industry City, the Army Terminal is proving every day that industry can not only survive, but thrive, on the Brooklyn waterfront.
I’m often asked why abandoned buildings in New York aren’t just turned into housing for the homeless, offered up to local artists, or repurposed as museums, and the truth is it’s never, ever that simple. But here’s an example of a historic building that has been painstakingly brought back from the brink of decay–over a period of 35 years with $150 million in public and private investment–to become a viable source of job creation. Luckily, the Brooklyn Army Terminal has managed to retain a palpable connection to its history, and in some areas, a pleasing patina of decay in keeping with its old age.
Overall, the structure reflects the austerity and efficiency one might expect given its military origins, and sure enough, nearly every architectural embellishment turns out to serve a practical purpose. Seemingly decorative studs lining the top of the facade actually function as a simple but effective drainage system for the roof. It’s a testament to the genius of its architect that such a utilitarian building can attain such elegance. The designer, Cass Gilbert, is best known for masterminding some of New York’s most beautiful and ornate structures, like the iconic Woolworth Building or the majestic Customs House, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC.
The construction of the Brooklyn Army Terminal began in 1918 under the direction of the federal government, with the goal of establishing a more efficient means of dispatching supplies and personnel to military fronts around the world. The four million sq ft complex of warehouses, offices, piers, and railroads was built over a period of only 17 months. Though the First World War had ended by the time the structure was completed, the Terminal proved indispensable during WWII, employing over 20,000 military personnel and civilians. It acted as the headquarters of the New York Port of Embarkation, which collectively moved 3.2 million troops and 37 million tons of supplies to army outposts around the globe during the war. Hundreds of thousands of men passed through the terminal on their way to serve overseas, arriving by trains that dropped them off a few paces from the ramps of outgoing ships. The most famous visitor was Elvis Presley, who stayed longer than most, holding a press conference in front of a crowd of photographers, reporters, and fans before embarking on an 18 month tour of Germany in 1958. He had been drafted the previous year.
The Terminal’s design was easily adapted to a variety of uses in peace time. During prohibition, it warehoused confiscated liquor from NYC speakeasies, and after the facility was decommissioned in 1966, the USPS moved operations into the ground floor following a fire in a prominent Manhattan branch. But through much of the 60s and 70s, the facility fell into a period of decay and decline. Ownership transferred to the city of New York in 1981, and the monumental task of restoring the structure for modern industrial use began in earnest when the NYC Economic Development Corporation stepped in to manage the building.
The job was split into discrete stages, tackling one section of the massive complex at a time. An upcoming renovation project dubbed “Phase 5” will complete the restoration of the two largest structures by revitalizing the last 500,000 sq ft of Building A, thanks to a $100 million dollar grant from the De Blasio administration announced last May. Today the leasable space boasts a 99% occupancy rate, with a diverse list of tenants including furniture builders, jewelry makers, and chocolatiers.
If you’re lucky enough to pay a visit, the highlight of the trip is Building B’s jaw-dropping atrium. (It’s generally closed to the public, but Turnstile Tours and Untapped Cities offer regular guided tours.) Freight cars would pull directly into the building and unload supplies with a five ton moveable crane that traveled the atrium from end to end, spanning the length of three football fields. Now the area serves as a walkway for tenants, and loading docks have been repurposed as balconies and container gardens. Recently, the location has been wildly popular for film and photo shoots, which is no surprise. It’s one of the most remarkable interiors in all of New York City.
Book stuff is starting to wind down, but I do have a couple events on the horizon for anyone interested in attending. As always, you can pick up a signed copy directly through me at this website, it’s the best way to support what I do.
Just a few paces into the woods behind the Old Dutch Church, the air grows thick with mosquitoes—that’s because the ground is full of damp, dark places where the bloodsuckers lurk and breed. To your left, bricks crumble from a row of gaping hillside mausoleums, and jagged headstones stretch as far as the eye can see through the thick overgrowth beyond. Though it stands just a few yards from the organization charged with its care, the Old Dutch Cemetery has been kept out of sight and completely abandoned for decades, which means this place doesn’t get many visitors, and these mosquitoes aim to eat you alive.
I don’t know all the particulars, but it’s difficult to understand how a church that has been in constant operation since the early 19th century could allow its historic graveyard to end up in such disrepair. In some cases, other parties have stepped in to take responsibility. Near the entrance to the church, an engraved monument lists the achievements of one of America’s founding fathers, whose remains were removed from the cemetery and relocated to his home city of Augusta, Georgia in 1973. Though the plaque makes no mention of it, the move probably had something to do with the poor condition of his family vault, which was built into the hillside directly behind the church along with several others.
All of the original residents of these burial chambers were reinterred elsewhere when the discovery of exposed human remains caused a public outcry many years ago. Today, the structures are empty, falling apart, and completely open to the elements and curious passersby. Though they appear to be very crudely built, they were more respectable in the first half of the 19th century, finished with slabs of engraved limestone that are currently piled up in pieces just outside the tombs. You can still make out a few fragments of the family names.
In the vaults, the number of mosquitoes reaches a level of absurdity you’d never thought possible. Inside the largest of them, a strange collection of trinkets comes into view as your eyes grow accustomed to the gloom—tiki men, Christmas stars, and Care Bears peer out from nooks and crannies in the walls and ceiling. Regarding their origin, my best guess is that the objects were left by visitors in atonement for disturbing the grave, or simply as a way of thanking the dead for playing host to an illicit night of partying. Sure enough, the ground is covered with malt liquor bottles; apparently there are more than a few residents of this sleepy town who consider getting drunk in an empty tomb a perfectly reasonable way to spend a Saturday night.
If you look carefully past all the modern refuse, a couple of eerie artifacts are scattered about, including a nearly intact 19th century casket handle and a segment of a second handle in a slightly different style. As tempted as I was to take these home, I figured that might be a good way to invite a ghostly possession into my life, not to mention a grave robbing charge, which could prove difficult to explain to future employers.
Past the hillside, a large number of monuments have fallen over or are dangerously close to doing so, several are broken or missing pieces, and all are steadily being consumed by the surrounding wilderness. Dating as far back as 1813 and as late as the early 20th century, the modest headstones represent a range of statuary typical for the period. For the most part there’s nothing distinctive about them, with one notable exception—an obelisk etched with the face of a sideburned young man, who seems to be the only one keeping watch over the Old Dutch Cemetery these days. By the looks of him, he strongly disapproves.
(Note: I’ve decided to thinly disguise the actual name and location of the church and cemetery, it has no relation to the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, NY.)