Monday, May 19, 2014

An ordinary Saturday in May?


I don't have any sewing to show today...instead I have a little bit of a history lesson.

While reading about the flooding in my area I stumbled on a post about New York State's Insane Asylum's once a year tour.  Well, who doesn't want to tour an old abandoned insane asylum? (Besides every member of my household but myself, I mean.) The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane opened in 1869 and operated until 1995 when all residents were finally relocated.  Turns out it's not so much abandoned as it is poorly maintained yet still used by the state Department of Corrections.  There is now a correctional facility and a Dick Van Dyke Addiction Treatment Center on the grounds which hampers picture taking.  You can't point a camera in the direction of the facilities, which lie in the midst of the sprawling grounds.  A variety of the buildings are also used for DOC offices, training, dorm style living for recruits in training, and stuff like that.  So, while we toured the old hospital, little of historical relevance remains.  (I bit my tongue when I passed a group of young people excited by the prospect of seeing the room where people received electroshock therapy.  It holds a couple of bunk beds and lockers now.) 

The grounds stretch over more than 400 acres with rambling red brick buildings.  Once a self sufficient community (even the red bricks were made on the grounds) Willard was the largest employer in the region.  At its peak Willard housed over 4000 patients.  

Any of the 5 building residence units not being used by the correctional facility are in such disrepair you can't tour them.  They are eerie and would probably have been the most interesting to see.  Old photos show large dorm style rooms, patients lining the hallways in chairs, rooms with rows of bathtubs, and rooms full of people participating in various 'therapies'.  (Crafts and such meant to keep them calm and occupied.)

The hospital, another sprawling building, took care of patients with specific and immediate medical needs.  The building is in fairly good shape and houses recruits during their training.  Touring the inside left no real sense of what it was like when it was fully operational. 

This building, North Home, was housing for married and older employees.  There was a second one for single staff that later became the dorm for the nursing school which opened on the grounds in 1945 and closed in 1978.  Many of the nurses who worked in the hospital were graduates of the School of Nursing. 

One of the buildings that remains true to its history is the mortuary.  It was a little building that you'd almost pass up thinking it was a barn or garage. In this picture it is the little tiny building tucked down behind that white house.  I don't know at what point all the sky lights were added but without them....whoa!  It would have been even scarier inside. 

Prepare yourselves for the next pictures....

The nurse/tour guide (who graduated from the School of Nursing in 1958) told a harrowing story of having to witness an autopsy in this room as a student. 

In the other room was the cooler with room for 5 unfortunate soles.
If this is what is left for us to see in the mortuary I can only just imagine what is left in those condemned buildings we weren't allowed in!  

The only building that actually housed patients (sadly sometimes referred to as inmates) that we toured was Grand View. 

Grand View was originally the state's agricultural college.  It closed when students and professors left to join the civil war.  The ag college didn't open back up at this sight but down in Ithaca as New York State's land-grant university...a portion of Cornell University.  

Grand View housed 'calmer' female patients.

The hallways looked as expected. 

Look at those doorways...

A patient room.

A cafeteria with a small kitchen.  Food was prepared off sight and brought to the various dorms to be served.  Apparently, patients didn't mingle with patients from other floors.

A day room with a very large sun room.  The view stretched out over the entire campus and the lake.  (The no picture rule held fast in that room.)

Lastly,  the recreation center.  This building was in really good shape.  The gym floor was newly refinished.  I am not sure who uses it.  Maybe the correctional facility guards, the recruits when they're on sight, or maybe the rehab residents.  At any rate, it was a beautiful building.  Back in the day, patients who were allowed to leave their wards could come here to watch movies, see shows, or play basketball. 

Inside there was a stage at one end of the gym and a basketball hoop at the other.

In the balcony there were rows of wooden seats.

Behind the balcony seats was a projector room.

On the back wall of the projection room people had noted every single movie shown.

In the basement there were bowling alleys.  

There are a couple beautiful homes down by the lake where the medical director and the steward lived.  The houses were a mix of old and 1970's new.  The area historical society is also housed on the grounds in a family home that was reportedly originally the train depot and later the home of the engineer that ran the power plant on the grounds.

I wish I had better pictures of the old crumbling buildings. They are spooky and imagining the people's lives within the walls is almost too much to dwell on.  Old asylum histories are usually shameful and it seems like states don't want museums established reminding people of how little we knew about caring for people with mental illness. 

Willard State Hospital has something very unique, though. Something that has brought it to the attention of the nation and created a traveling museum exhibit but I will write about that in my next post.  This post has gone on (and on) long enough.  It really is a shame, though, that a place like Willard doesn't have a museum that maintains the legacy...even though it's a dark and sad story. 



  1. I had never heard of Willard, Pam--Gowanda was the one we always talked about and toured in high school. It looks like a pretty setting, but oh, if those walls could talk!

  2. I read of Willard in a historical fiction book. Interesting, but sad.