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The Vanishing of America’s Historic Mental Asylums

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in 2011 (photograph by Jere Waldron, via Flickr)
Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in 2011 (photograph by Jere Waldron, via Flickr)

Between 1848 and 1890, dozens of grand mental asylums were built around the United States under the Kirkbride Plan, designed by Thomas Story Kirkbride. An architecture of fresh air and sunlight offered a very different curative approach from the crowded facilities that characterized earlier mental health treatment facilities. Now, after overcrowding and funding cuts brought horrid conditions to these spaces during the 20th century, the Victorian structures are disappearing, and many believe they’re taking a voiceless history with them. According to a report from Preservationworks, which last month focused on Kirkbride preservation at its conference, there were once over 70 of these asylums, but now only 15 remain.

Preserve Greystone is rallying to halt the demolition of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris County, New Jersey, which began on April 6. Last week the grassroots group announced from the hospital grounds that although approved demolition permits make it difficult to give the Kirkbride building historic designation, its destruction will undermine the integrity of the nearby Illumination Gas Plant — which is on the National Register of Historic Places. At the Morris County Courthouse on May 13, their attorney will ask for a stay in the ongoing demolition. It’s the latest in the struggle to save the building, which the state is paying around $35 million to demolish despite calling for reuse proposals in 2013, all seven of which were rejected by the state Treasury Department.

Postcard of the "State Insane Asylum" in Morris Plains, New Jersey (pre-1923) (via Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital Archives)
Postcard of the “State Insane Asylum” in Morris Plains, New Jersey (pre-1923) (via Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital Archives)

Called the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum at Morristown when it opened in 1876, the complex features a 675,000-square-foot, five-story tiered Second Empire Victorian building at its center. Closed since 2008, boards cover its large windows and paint peels from its arched ceilings. It’s here in 1948 that lobotomies were declared ineffective treatment, a landmark research project for the era. Allen Ginsberg’s mother, a victim of one of those lobotomies in 1947, was institutionalized at Greystone for a time (although her surgery was at Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center on Long Island). Woody Guthrie was treated for Huntington’s disease on Ward 40 from 1956 to 1961. And untold numbers of New Jersey residents have connections to the thousands who were patients during the institution’s good and atrocious decades.

“What happened there is important to remember, and buildings are the one thing that outlast our memories, they outlast us,” Phil Buehler, a photographer who published Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty: Greystone Park State Hospital Revisited, told Hyperallergic. “When the buildings are gone, a lot of those memories go with them.”

Buehler has photographed ruins in the New York City area for decades, and compared the loss of the asylums to an Ellis Island void of buildings, which was on the brink of happening in the 1970s when he visited the abandoned immigration facilities. “Once it’s gone, who is going to walk by the soccer field or whatever replaces it and be able to conjure that past? That collective memory will be gone,” he said.

Hallway in Greystone Park Hospital (photograph by Phil Buehler, from Woody Guthrie's Wardy Forty)
Hallway in Greystone Park Hospital (photograph by Phil Buehler, from ‘Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty‘)
Staircase in Greystone Park Hospital (photograph by Phil Buehler, from Woody Guthrie's Wardy Forty)
Staircase in Greystone Park Hospital (photograph by Phil Buehler, from ‘Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty‘)

A protest against the demolition last month drew hundreds, many of whom sang Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” However, pieces of Greystone’s south wing and clinic building are already falling, and the old trees where Guthrie’s children once played when they visited are being cut down.

“So much work and craftsmanship went into [the asylums], and so much history — both good and bad — happened within their walls,” Ethan McElroy, who runs KirkbrideBuildings.com, told Hyperallergic. “To knock them down to make room for strip malls, cookie cutter condos, or empty lots is ridiculous. These places will never be built again and each one is so significant and unique. It’s a crime to destroy them, especially now that there are so few left.”

Then and now at Greystone (photo by Foresaken Fotos, via Flickr)
Then and now at Greystone (photo by Foresaken Fotos, via Flickr)

Reuse isn’t impossible with the old hospital behemoths. Building 50 at Traverse City in Michigan is being redeveloped into residential and commercial space. The owners of Weston Asylum in West Virginia are embracing the site’s unsettling past and offering both historic and ghost tours as part of its ongoing preservation. Demolition of Bryce Hospital at the University of Alabama started this year, with the wings being taken down, but plans call for the restoration of some sections that will be converted into academic facilities. Other sites are still in danger of being torn down, such as Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, a former state mental hospital in Minnesota. There are also non-Kirkbride asylums and hospitals that have closed and fallen into decay, such as Letchworth Village in Rockland County, New York. It may be partly demolished to make way for a new Legoland, while the graves marked with numbers instead of names for forgotten patients remain in the nearby forest. Too often these structures are subject to a sort of demolition by neglect, where the state-owed properties are left to ruin until the easiest way to fix the eyesore is to tear it down.

“There’s unquestionably a good amount of dark history, I won’t argue with that. But for some reason most people forget that asylums were founded to help people, and very often did,” McElroy said. “They were a huge step forward in the treatment of people with mental illness. Before asylums became common, people suffering from mental illness were often kept in prisons, confined to their homes, or simply became vagrants and weren’t cared for by anyone.”

“The thing about these Kirkbrides and these asylums, it’s an embarrassing, painful part of our history and culture that nobody wants to talk about,” Buehler said. “It’s almost a blot or a blight on our memory that we used to warehouse people in these big asylums.” However, he added that “it’s easier to turn away” and you “can’t rebuild them once they’re destroyed. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

The Kirkbride building at Greystone (photo by Foresaken Fotos, via Flickr)
The Kirkbride building at Greystone (photo by Foresaken Fotos, via Flickr)

Read more about the history and preservation efforts for Greystone Park Hospital at Preserve Greystone.

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