Monday, August 24, 2015

A Walk Through An Abandoned New York City Asylum

Our second installment of an off-the-beaten track location in New York City. Our first, titled "A Walk Along the Crack Tracks" explored the abandoned tracks, tunnels and homeless of the South Bronx's old Port Morris line. Link:

Today we take a walk through an abandoned psychiatric facility that opened in 1912. It began as a "farm colony" for mentally disturbed patients to live in a pastoral setting with plenty of space, fresh air, and farming for its patients. It used the healing power of work in a structured environment to help in their rehabilitation. We start on the first floor...

Hallway and stairwell. It is very dark and we capture our photos using long exposure and a tripod. There are signs of homeless living in at least one of the rooms but thankfully no one is around.

Nameplate. New buildings were constructed in 1926, 1929, and 1933 and the facility became a state hospital with a capacity of 3,300 patients. By the 1940s there was severe overcrowding with over 6,000 patients.

Doors. Thick metal, small windowed doors look out onto the hallway. Rust and peeling paint accumulated on the floor show how long this particular building has been abandoned.

Wheelchairs. New treatments for mental illness were introduced here, including hydrotherapy, insulin therapy, and electro-shock therapy.

Chair. A dark hallway takes us to the main staircases. It is completely silent except for the paint chips that crunch underfoot.

Dayroom. Rotting curtains filter the sunlight. The facility was also known to perform lobotomies.

Wall mural. Peeling artwork lines the room. By 1959 the patient population reached the staggering level of 7,000.

Gurney. "State School Tile" lines the walls. Antidepressants and tranquilizing drugs became widely used in the state mental health system in 1955. All windows we encounter are barred and locked.

Wooden wheelchair.  The large front wheels are missing.  The new drugs that were introduced meant quieter wards, fewer injuries to staff and patients, and a dramatic increase in the number of patients who could manage daily life on their own.

Chair Stuffing.  The remains of a mural disintegrates slowly behind two upholstered chairs that seem in the process of being consumed. We encounter no animals throughout the duration of our stay. It is silent, still, and stuffy. And more than just a bit melancholy.

Head support.  A large wheelchair sits in a yellow room with floral curtains and waist-high room dividers.  We left any relics where we found them with no staging on our part. 

Shoes, female. Deinstitutionalization which began in the 1960s became coupled with policies outlawing work, based on the legal notion of patients' rights. It was considered that having patients work in the kitchen or laundry or garden or in workshops constituted "exploitation".

"Outdoor" recreation area.  Once "work" was outlawed many patients had little to do but sit zombielike in front of barred windows or the never turned-off TV. "Outdoor" rooms that punctuate the ends of some hallways, offered fresh air and seemingly little else.

Retro-modern chairs. Lead paint chips and the ever present asbestos dust diminished their "take-home" desirability... Air born toxins are always a danger when doing this type of exploration. As well as arrest.

Patient artwork. The deteriorating walls are occasionally adorned with artwork created by the patients themselves as a form of therapy.  Such work's presence, in the empty dismal rooms, set the overall tone of heartbreak and sadness that stayed with us.

The number of patients at the hospital declined to 1,100 by 1991. Buildings like this one, already in disrepair, were left to deteriorate further. They were too expensive to renovate and bring up to code.

All photographs © 2015 James and Karla Murray


  1. Amazing, they wouldn't let them work to have a sense of self worth. Then the state dumped them, Koch era? into the streets, where many still reside. Worse than the USSR

  2. Amazing, they wouldn't let them work to have a sense of self worth. Then the state dumped them, Koch era? into the streets, where many still reside. Worse than the USSR

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