Up in the Old Asylum

As preservationists fight to save a pair of psychiatric hospitals from demolition, a photographer explores their decaying beauty and the century-old tales hidden within.

Up in the Old Asylum

The Lunatic Asylum at Morristown first opened in 1876. Later renamed the less offensive “Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital,” the facility in Morris Plains, New Jersey, is centered around a main building constructed in the Kirkbride style, a branch of High Victorian Gothic architecture designed specifically for asylums. Known for its distinctive tiered, linear pattern, Kirkbride buildings placed administration facilities in the middle, with two expansive ward wings on each side. Kirkbride buildings were designed to house and protect patients in a series of secluded wards. The tiered layout kept mental and physical illnesses contained to specific areas and cultivated a safe, enclosed atmosphere for the patients to live and receive treatment.

Now and Then: The Lunatic Asylum at Morristown, now known as Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.
Now and Then: The Lunatic Asylum at Morristown, now known as Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.

Unfortunately, the idealistic Kirkbride Plan could not live up to the demand for housing for the mentally ill. Overcrowding forced hundreds of patients to sleep in hallways, basements and attics, where conditions were inhumane and unsanitary. A lack of adequate state funding and a general misunderstanding of certain mental illnesses led to allegations of mistreatment and violence, leading to patient suicides and escapes. Eventually Greystone began dealing with its overcrowding problem and implementing new treatment practices. The hospital moved its patients out of the Kirkbride building and into a new facility in 1988, using the center of the building for administrative purposes only. In 2000, the building was ordered to be completely vacated within three years.

Each ward was designed to treat patients according to their level of suspected curability. So-called incurable patients, often loud and violent, were housed in seclusion wards furthest from the center administration area. Quieter patients were placed closer to the front, such as the ward pictured above, so neither they nor visitors to the asylum would have to see or hear those in the “incurable” wards. Some sections have deteriorated faster than others. The wards, especially those on the top floors, have seen the most decay, while the center admin area of the building is mostly intact and still even has electricity in some rooms.

The wards were designed to have arched alcoves in which patients could sit, play board games, knit, read, practice piano or participate in whatever indoor activities they were allowed. Each alcove had a large window facing outward towards the bucolic hospital property. Each section had its own alcove, with the exception of the seclusion wards.

Following its closure in early 2000, many buildings on the Greystone property were demolished, but a few remaining structures, including the Kirkbride building, still stand. The land in front of the hospital has been transformed into a community park, and interested visitors can walk right up to the front of the building.

About eighty miles northeast of Greystone, in Poughkeepsie, New York, stands Hudson River State Hospital, another abandoned Kirkbride-style asylum. The Kirkbride Plan was a popular model for asylums from the mid-to-late 1800’s, before it fell out of favor for buildings that were less expensive to maintain. Hudson River State Hospital opened in 1871 and closed in 2003.

In 2007, lightning struck the south wing of Hudson River State’s Kirkbride building, causing severe damage to the building, which still stands today, albeit precariously.

The men’s and women’s wards in this Kirkbride building look very similar to that of Greystone; however, the building was constructed with brick and wood rather than brick and stone, which exacerbated the destruction of multiple floors during and after the fire. Currently, the exposed wood of the wards continues to rot and periodically collapse. Scrappers rip apart the walls on a regular basis.

Hudson, like Greystone, was a self-sufficient community, with a sprawling campus containing a church, powerhouse, firehouse, car repair shop, a rehab center with a bowling alley, pool and gym, a theater and many more structures, all of which still exist on the property.

Hudson consists of a number of medical buildings, ranging from a ten-story hospital to a small laboratory. Medical studies and experiments were conducted on campus in doctors’ labs, one of which was set on the top floor of the morgue, as seen above. Throughout the hospital’s operational period, patients were treated with numerous experimental methods, some as benign as gardening and occupational therapy, but ranging from electroshock therapy to more dubious and ultimately detrimental practices like the transorbital lobotomy.

Hudson’s Kirkbride building is unique due to its uneven wings. The men’s wards are longer than the women’s wards, although most photographs of patients at Hudson are of women. The wards had day rooms, as shown above, in which patients played pool, practiced instruments, sewed, made art and read; although many photographs feature patients simply sitting still and doing nothing, an inert pastime that increased greatly with the discovery of Thorazine, an antipsychotic with a highly sedating effect. Thorazine contributed greatly to the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities in the mid-1900s—when overcrowded state asylums sought to quickly treat and release patients—and the beginning of the decline of self-sufficient communities like Greystone and Hudson.

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital is currently slated for demolition, starting as early as spring 2014. Groups like Preserve Greystone are fighting to save the historic building, although the outcome doesn’t look promising, as the last report from the state of New Jersey indicated that plans for demolition were still underway.

Hudson River State Hospital is privately owned, although it is currently for sale. The best outcome for preservationists would see the property privately purchased and restored, although it seems more likely there will be a corporate purchase, potentially leading to demolition for housing and business purposes.