With its soaring towers, slate mansard roof, arched entranceways and Gothic windows set in polychrome high brick walls, the massive Hudson River Psychiatric Center, located on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, typifies the gloomy, scary-looking state asylums dating from the Victorian Age. Yet it was an incredibly distinguished building when it was completed in 1871. Designed by architect Frederic Withers on sylvan grounds landscaped by the famous team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the Hudson River State Hospital, as it was originally called, reflected one man’s progressive notion in the mid-19th century of asylums as recuperative places for healing.
Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, who had been hired as supervisor of Pennsylvania’s mental hospital in the 1840s, wrote an influential treatise on hospital design based on his experience, which provided the blueprint for virtually all the asylums built in the mid- and late 19th century. As explained on the website www.kirkbridebuildings.com, which posts photos of surviving examples of these Victorian institutional behemoths, the Kirkbride template was a central administrative core, often crowned with authoritative towers and lavishly ornamented, from which extended two wings of wards. There was separation of the genders and a strict hierarchy: The patients who were most ill were housed in the outermost wards, while those who were somewhat socialized lived closer to the core. Kirkbride also prescribed the location of hospitals in rural settings (sometimes there was an on-site farm), whose peace and beauty he believed was a calming influence on the mentally ill.
Despite these good intentions, eventually the asylum – which originally meant a retreat or refuge – became associated with abuse, and the buildings took on the mien of forbidding prisons. According to the website, Kirkbride was a controversial figure, who was once almost murdered by a patient. On the other hand, his second wife was a former inmate whom he claimed had been cured.
Whatever controversy accompanied these institutions, their architectural legacy is significant. Ethan McElroy of Boston started kirkbridebuildings.com in 2001, after he became fascinated by a Kirkbride asylum in Danvers, Massachusetts. “It was really a remarkable building. Because it was abandoned and off-limits to the public at the time, it was easy to sort of obsess over it,” McElroy wrote by e-mail. He investigated the building’s history, discovered that there were similar ones around the country and began visiting some of them.
McElroy said that the website has received as many as 10,000 visits a month. Some of the visitors who contact him were former patients or employees or relatives for either. Regarding the e-mails from former patients, “Some of those are positive, others are negative. Quite a few people feel strongly that the buildings represent a lot of negativity. That is true to some extent, but I believe they represent a lot of positive things too,” McElroy wrote.
Unfortunately, like many surviving Kirkbride structures, the Hudson River Psychiatric Center has long been in disrepair. The south wing was nearly destroyed by a fire in 2007, and much of the structure was abandoned. A nearby remnant of the formerly massive institution, which once housed thousands, continued to operate with 325 employees and approximately 125 patients. However, this January it was closed by the state, a victim of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget cuts, despite a petition from employees and supporters. Patients were moved to the Rockland Psychiatric Center. A plan to convert the buildings to a residential and commercial development has been halted and the developer has put the property on the market.