Even in broad daylight, the ruins of the Hudson River Psychiatric Center in the Town of Poughkeepsie conjure every horror-movie cliché you can imagine: the echoing screams of the hopelessly mad, the slammed doors of padded cells, the businesslike snap of manacles on wriggling, unwilling hands and feet.
Though it may once have been associated with pain, what was first known nearly 150 years ago as the Hudson River State Hospital was built to shelter and comfort society’s castoffs: the mad, the physically damaged, the mentally ill. Its progressive approach to mental illness was built around the theories of a man largely forgotten by history, Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride’s theories were anything but abstract; they were embodied in the gracious buildings and sylvan grounds epitomized by the Poughkeepsie site. Kirkbride asylums (the word once held suggestions of tranquility, not insanity) were widely accepted in his day and became the standard by which all such facilities were judged well into the 20th century.
In antebellum America, the poor, the mad and the physically disabled were often cast off by their families, if they had any, and rounded up by communities and dumped in other towns; it wasn’t unusual for them to be locked away in prisonlike “poorhouses.” But doctors at Kirkbride centers like the one in Poughkeepsie took a vastly more enlightened approach to the mentally ill: It was called “moral treatment,” a regimen that was based on the belief that altering a person’s environment could reverse or at least mediate a person’s “madness.” The means to that end were natural beauty, comfortable, window-laden architecture and participatory sports and entertainment.
Time has not been kind either to Kirkbride’s memory nor the asylum that he designed. The Hudson River Psychiatric Center has been in decline since the 1980s – a decline hastened by radically changing fashions in mental health treatment and shrinking state funds. It had 5,500 resident/patients in 1955; it has been 15 years since the Center was shuttered and become a vine-covered, lightning-struck collection of derelict buildings.
Stand today at the once-magnificent entrance to the Center’s main administrative building and look down on what in its heyday was called “the Great Lawn.” Decades ago, it was refashioned by the state into a nine-hole golf course. Today, it resembles nothing less than a second-growth forest of vagrant trees.
This month, a new chapter in the Center’s imagined as well as factual-but-forgotten history was written – not with pen and ink, but with the claw of a giant yellow Liebor 936 Excavator that stood silently next to a ruined staff residence building. Fifty feet away, a gathering of smiling developers, town, county and state officials stood beneath a white plastic tent and praised each other for finally having begun to write that new chapter. What developers are calling Hudson Heritage will be a $250 million mixed-use development of 750 residential units, including retail shops, boutique hotel accommodations and the same gracious, sweeping landscapes overlooking the Hudson River that were part of Kirkbride’s therapeutic efforts. Most but not all of the existing buildings will be razed; a few structures, including the Center’s towering administration building on the site’s north end, will be renovated and preserved and, as the saying goes, repurposed.
A cheer went up at the July 13 gathering when the Liebor 936 roared to life and knocked a small, dusty and altogether symbolic chunk of brick and masonry out of the building’s once-beautiful façade. No tears were shed. Not only has the property become an eyesore, it has also become a continual nuisance for town police and a symbol, to those who know what goes on there, of the chronic costs of drug addiction.
The dilapidated buildings are a magnet for people whom property manager Steve Burke called “scrappers”: drug addicts who break into the dilapidated buildings, sometimes risking their lives to steal copper and brass as well as artifacts that can be bartered for drug money. Then there are the graffiti artists and late-night partiers. According to Burke, who jokingly said that he all but lives on the property, one such party was held on the boarded-up fourth floor of a building opposite the site of last week’s meeting the night before the gathering took place. “It’s almost a daily occurrence,” he said.
Though there was a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, no champagne was served. The gathering was merely the first and most dramatic physical step that the developers, Diversified Realty Advisors, needed to take on what promises to be a process that they say could take from eight to ten years to complete.
Kirkbride’s dream of offering the mentally ill shelter from the storms of their psyches and the society that rejected them had to be wrested from a forested wilderness that has all but reclaimed the structures meant to make that dream come true. The developers have already spent several years wresting environmental and residential permissions of every kind from the state, county and town. As more buildings fall and more acreage is cleared, developers are dreaming their own dreams of a new and lucrative beginning for a blighted, once-beautiful landscape.