A Brief History of the Main Building

Legislature determined to erect a second State Hospital in another section of the State, and they authorized the Governor to appoint Commissioners to receive by gift, or contract for the purchase of a suitable site on or near the Hudson River, below the City of Albany, upon which to erect the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane. (Source)

Late in 1866 New York State Governor Richard C. McCormick named five men; Abiah W. Palmer, W. J. Kenyon, Dr. J. M. Cleveland, John Falconer, & D. M. Madden as commissioners – with the foremost task of locating a tract of land onto which would be built the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane. A few months later on January 9th 1867, the commissioners returned to the Governor with positive news.

The commissioners had momentarily secured 296 acres of land in Dutchess County, near the City of Poughkeepsie, and were pleased to report that the land would be offered as a gift by the residents of Dutchess County to the State. And so in March 1867 the Governor, with the approval of State Legislature, accepted the land (formerly part of the James Roosevelt & Wm. A. Davis estates) as state property. Shortly after, the Governor appointed nine prominent business men to form the Board of Managers – whose initial task was to find an architect for the intended hospital.

The Board of Managers chose prominent architect Frederick Clarke Withers to design the new hospital – which would be designed according to the recommendations of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a leading mental health physician from Philadelphia who had dedicated much of his professional career researching and documenting asylum layout, design, & construction.

Withers envisioned a massive structure – some 1,500 feet in length – to be built in High Victorian Gothic – with commanding views of the Hudson River & surrounding valley area. The hospital itself was to be surrounded by sprawling grounds, lavish gardens, lush fields, ponds, and a extensive network of patient walkways – all of which where designed and planned by leading landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux.

Withers submitted his master plan to the Board of Managers, who gladly relayed the plans to the Governor.

The plans comprise a centre building for administrative purposes, with a chapel, kitchen, engine and machine rooms, shops, ect, arranged about two courts, and with two wings extended towards the north and south, the former for the female and the latter for the male patients, each of them comprising three longitudinal and two transverse sections arranged en echelon. The whole extent in a direct line from the extremity of one wing to that of the other is about 1,500 feet, while each wing recedes toward the east 500 feet from the centre buildings, so that the lengths of the halls on each floor necessary to be traversed in a journey from one end to the other will be more then half a mile. (Source)

The plans were approved shortly thereafter, and construction began early in 1868 on the 2nd transverse male ward. It was estimated at the time that the construction of the new hospital would cost the State roughly $800,000 dollars to complete, with that in mind the Board set out to cut expenses – even if it meant breaking away from the State approved master plan.

To cut costs the Board built a new dock on the Hudson River, thus cutting the cost of deliveries to the hospital site made via barges, a new road was built from the dock to the hospital site, thus cutting the distance traveled compared with the older, and steeper, farm roads. The entire foundation of the hospital was mined from a quarry located on the grounds just east of the hospital site and was also cut on site; all mortar was also mixed using materials made readily available on location.

Instead of hiring a separate contractor to come in and construct the hospital, the Board opted to hire local craftsmen, stone cutters, iron workers, and builders to take on the task. Originally it was thought that cutting out a separate contractor would end up saving the State thousands of dollars in miscellaneous fees, but as the first months passed it became evident that finding enough skilled workers – especially during the prime building months – would become another challenge into itself.

On December 24th, 1868 the Board of Managers released their 1st ever annual report for the hospital. It contained a detailed and lively account of all the years past happenings at the site, as well as a well documented account of spent funds; which stated that $102,728.01 dollars had been spent on the actual construction of the hospital alone for the past year. Although the cost had overrun the States set financial backing of $100,000 dollars a year, the mere $3,000 overrun would pale in comparison to future financial problems.

The Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane opened with limited use on October 18th 1871, 40 patients took residence within its wards, with the majority of them finding comfort and peace. But on the outside public pressure had been growing to see results as construction continued to fall short of expectations and goals. On July 4th, 1873 an article published in the New York Times; entitled “An Astonishing Job” took aim at the Board of Managers, and called for an immediate end to construction at the hospital.

The managers have entirely disregarded the law by which they were authorized to act. They have altered the plans and specifications, they have done the work by days’ labor instead of by contract, and they have already spent nearly $1,200,000 though not more then one-third of the work is finished. At this rate the committee reports that the hospital will cost not less then $3,000,000, and perhaps as much as $4,000,000.

Most of the rooms in the building are very small, only eight by ten; yet they are all divided by brick partitions, some of them sixteen inches in thickness. Nothing seems to have interfered with the managers’ whims and fancies. The floors are laid in yellow Southern pine, the most expensive of flooring, fitted and cut in a way greatly to enhance the cost. (Source)

Eight years prior in 1865 the people of Dutchess County had been told the hospital would be completed quickly, efficiently, and most importantly that construction would be completed within five years. Although a motion was created to halt construction, it was denied; and the Legislature continued to fill request for additional funding. Construction eventually wrapped up in 1895 – although the hospitals outward appearance seems to deem it unfinished.

According to the original master plan the hospital was to have two wings with five wards each, one wing for male patients and the other for female patients. But when the hospital was completed; it only supported two female wards. The reason for this anomaly in design was due to lack of funds. The remaining female wards were deemed too expensive to complete, so they were left out of the final design.

What stands today is truly an incredible monument to the minds and good intentions of those who truly tried to make a difference in the lives of those affected by mental disorders. Although the phrase “insane asylum” has become a taboo of modern society, the people who worked hard to create these hospitals for the “insane” could have never envisioned that they would; one day be transformed into warehouses for the mentally ill, and eventually into crumbling ruins of a society longing to forget a dark era in the history of mental health.

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