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.
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.
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.”
In Queens Village, mere inches of brick and mortar separate the world we know from one of the strangest places in the city. Once a haven for New York’s cast-out mentally ill, Creedmoor Psychiatric Center’s Building 25 has undergone something of a transformation over its 40 years of neglect.
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.