The Hudson River State Hospital, where natural beauty and humane treatment revolutionized mental health treatment, faces uncertain future

The Hudson River State Hospital championed an approach known as “moral treatment,” the brainchild of a Philadelphia doctor named Thomas Story Kirkbride. Doctors at emerging “Kirkbride centers” like the one in Poughkeepsie believed 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. (Historic images courtesy of asylumprojects.org)

The man known as the “Squire” sold off his lands overlooking the Hudson River to New York State in 1867, after the family mansion burned to the ground. There would be other mansions to build, other stately lands to purchase and develop in nearby Hyde Park.

The state paid $85,000 – the equivalent of roughly $1.4 million today – for 296 acres of rolling woodlands in the Town of Poughkeepsie. That kind of money in antebellum America could not only buy a lot of land, it could also buy a lot of solace for a family facing the loss of their home.

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Solace, as it turned out, was something that “Squire” James Delano Roosevelt’s lands would provide for many tens of thousands of faceless, needy people during the ensuing years. It was on his family’s lands that a revolutionary hospital was built: the Hudson River Hospital for the Insane.

The new institution’s innovations were both philosophical and physical. Until the mid-19th century, men, women and children suffering from the psychological problems often created by poverty were routinely thrown into poorhouses or “insane asylums” of unrivaled degradation. But with the end of the Civil War, state governments, suddenly faced with an unprecedented influx of mentally damaged veterans, began to recognize the need for institutions where combatants suffering from what we’d now call PTSD could convalesce.

Enter not only the Hudson River State Hospital (the “Insane” appellation was soon dropped), but also a new philosophy for treating the mentally ill. The HRSH championed an approach known as “moral treatment,” the brainchild of a Philadelphia doctor named Thomas Story Kirkbride. Doctors at emerging “Kirkbride centers” like the one in the Town of Poughkeepsie believed 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.

To accomplish this, the so-called “Kirkbride Plan” required not only a bucolic setting, but also a structure that made Kirkbride’s therapeutic philosophy possible. The signature building at the HRSH featured a main administrative structure whose “bat-wing” style floorplan included dormitories and public spaces for residents that spread out from the building, which was called – you guessed it – the Kirkbride Building.

The hospital was the architectural product of three key players: The main Administration Building was designed by Frederick Clarke Withers, who was renowned in his day as a creator of classic Gothic Revival-style buildings. If his star has faded with time, the burnish on the names of Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux has only increased over the years. These co-creators of Central Park were responsible for designing the grounds and landscaping of the hospital.

Initially, almost anybody could be admitted to the hospital. According to several sources, patients suffering from afflictions no more serious than job loss, marital difficulties or plain mental exhaustion found their way to Olmsted and Vaux’s sun-speckled Great Lawn. Men accused of crimes great and small checked into the hospital to avoid prosecution, joining the ranks of injured war vets whose numbers only increased with the coming of two world wars.

As the years went by and the hospital grew (sometime accompanied by financial scandals), new and controversial therapies were introduced, including such things as “tub therapy,” in which patients were essentially forced to spend weeks and even months sitting in an enclosed tub of warm water. (Later, water played an even more sinister role when cold-water hosings were used on recalcitrant patients.) Suffice it to say that it was the rare psychological therapy or theory over the past 140 years that wasn’t brought to bear on patients at the Hudson River State Hospital.

Like the therapies used over the years, the grounds themselves were a miscellany of styles. Withers’ main building (which was never fully completed) was surrounded by a collection of structures that ranged from the mundane to the bizarre.

Time has not been kind either to Kirkbride’s memory nor to the hospital to which his philosophy gave birth.

Stand today at the once-magnificent, now-weatherbeaten entrance to the Kirkbride Building and look down on Olmsted and Vaux’s Great Lawn. Like the entire site, it has regressed over the years into an overgrown jungle of vines and scrub bushes and trees. Long-abandoned buildings are rattling, dangerous skeletons of their former selves, festooned with graffiti, magnets for the homeless and the adventurous. Fires – a constant danger for the town’s two volunteer fire companies – have contributed further to the facility’s physical demise.

The Kirkbride Administration Building officially closed in 2001, the victim of radically changing policies toward the mentally ill that began in the 1970s, when institutions like the hospital were effectively emptied in the name of providing the “least restrictive environments” for the mentally ill. The entire facility was officially closed on January 25, 2012, by which time sunshine and fresh air had proven to be no more the panacea Kirkbride had said they would be than homelessness and a reliance on behavioral drugs have proven to be.

Since the turn of the century, developers have proposed a variety of plans to repurpose the site while residents and political leaders have struggled with various proposals. Chief among those would-be developers is Hudson Heritage, LLC, which bought 156 acres from the state for $2.75 million in 2005. Since then, Hudson Heritage has not only undergone the usual years-long environmental reviews, but also made several proposals for the land and its buildings.

Initial plans called for the preservation of some of the site’s buildings; but, between chronic arson, age-weakened, unsafe structures and the occasional lightning strike, it seems unlikely that much of the original structures will survive the wrecking ball. Olmsted and Vaux’s Great Lawn appears to be the only remnant of the facility that will be rehabilitated and preserved as part of a mixed-use development featuring a projected 750 residential units, a supermarket, 150,000 square feet of retail space and a possible motel. Buildings have been razed and large swaths of overgrowth have been clear-cut in anticipation of a preliminary opening of some of the property in 2020 to 2021. (Spokesmen for the developers did not return requests for comments.)

Olmsted and Vaux’s Great Lawn appears to be the only remnant of the facility that will be rehabilitated and preserved as part of a mixed-use development featuring a projected 750 residential units, a supermarket, 150,000 square feet of retail space and a possible motel. (Photo by Julie O’Connor)

Town of Poughkeepsie supervisor John Baisley sighs when he recounts the years spent determining the fate of the old hospital and its grounds. “They’ve done a lot to make it happen, but it’ll take years,” he said. He has been told that the project will cost at least $288 million. Asbestos abatement alone has already cost at least $15 million. And while Baisley said that he hopes the façade of the Kirkbride Building can be preserved with new office space augmenting it, he didn’t sound optimistic.

Baisley’s only too aware of the costs of hospital to the town during its long decline. He’s a member of one of the town’s two volunteer fire companies, and has seen firsthand what a danger to his colleague an intentionally set fire or one triggered by lightning can pose to firefighters. And he marvels that late-night partiers and graffiti artists haven’t yet been seriously injured in the decrepit structures.

All in all, he said, he’s happy that the project is finally coming to fruition, as are Republican and Democrat board members. The town stands to gain substantial income in property taxes and increased business traffic.

It took the Hudson River State Hospital six years to grow from a plan in 1867 to a reality in 1873. It has already taken more than twice that number of years for Hudson Heritage to move from the drawing board to reality. There’s no telling if time will be any kinder to Hudson Heritage than it was to the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane.

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