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For the agrarian insane

The New York City suburbs make me nervous and itchy. I grew up in northern Westchester county, far enough north that we lived on a dirt road near active farms, but near enough to the that my father could commute every day for more than twenty years. As the area morphed from exurb to suburb, I left, my sister left, and eventually my parents left, all moving north to western Massachusetts.

This weekend, I drove down to Danbury, CT for my twentieth high school reunion and found that there’s a distinct dividing line separating suburb from “upstate” New York. I believe it runs through The Red Rooster, a drive-in burger shack in Brewster, NY. South of the line, people honk, cut me off in traffic and generally make me feel like a hayseed. North, things are slower, more polite… and decidedly weirder.

“Quaint” is the word that comes to most people’s minds when they think of New England – white clapboard buildings with green shutters, old barns, sap buckets on maple trees. We’ve got all that out in western New England and eastern New York… but we also have spooky abandoned mills, labyrinths, witches, unexpected sculpture gardens, and in the backyard of a neighbor in Williamstown, a twelve-foot tall straight-backed chair, painted blue, for no discernible reason. So yeah, we got quaint, but we got weird, too.

One of dozens of abandoned buildings at the Harlem Valley complex

About fifteen miles north of that imaginary line is an amazing complex, called “Dover Knolls” by the optimistic and “Harlem Valley Wingdale” by virtually everyone else. Lining both sides of Route 22, a busy north/south road, are dozens of stately brick buildings, some of them quite massive. Set slightly off the road is a disused baseball field and grandstand, and farther up the hill, there’s the unmistakeable glint of coiled barbed wire. The roads into the facility are open to the public, and far from abandoned, but the buildings are locked tight, sometimes boarded shut and emblazoned with No Trespassing signs. It is, in other word, exactly the sort of place I enjoy researching, exploring and photographing.

In 1911, the State of New York began building a massive prison in Wingdale, NY on a patch of rich farmland. Plans included more than twenty buildings surrounded by a massive wall, and building costs were projected at more than $4 million dollars. The goal of the facility was to alleviate overcrowding at Sing Sing prison with a prison farm, where trusted inmates could harvest hay and tend cattle. For reasons that are obscure (and which I’m now trying to research), plans to build the prison were shelved in 1912, and construction slowed, completing only four of the originally planned structures.

A postcard of the Harlem Valley State Hospital, from asylumprojects.org. I have to believe that this is a photo of a plan or scale model – I think the layout of the facility ended up being much smaller than this, and a photo from this perspective would have need to be an aerial view. But I’m just speculating here…

Governor Alfred Smith rescued the site in 1923, with plans for “a hospital for the agrarian insane” which could house “high-grade, harmless lunatics who are physically rugged” and who could help work the farms associated with the facility. In 1924, Harlem Valley State Hospital began its seventy year life as an institution for the mentally ill. At its peak, nearly six thousand patients were committed to the institution, and a staff of more than five thousand worked at the facility, which became a centerpiece of the local economy. The hospital pioneered insulin shock therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, group therapy, and ultimately the development which brought about the downfall of the facility: the widespread use of psychoactive medications to help manage mental illness.

By the 1970s, the deinstitutionalization movement was shrinking the staff at the hospital, and in 1994, it closed its doors for good. What remains is a massive campus that functioned much as its own self-sufficient town. Exploring the campus yesterday, I found a “Short Stop” convenience store tucked between two residential buildings, floors covered with fifteen years of dust, but the signage still fresh. Accounts of the facility in its prime talk of an ice cream parlor, a bowling alley and a church, all intended for patients but open for the use of staff and townspeople as well.

The integration of a facility like this into the surrounding community leads to some weird juxtapositions. As I peered into the disused dormitories, families leaving the still-operating church drove past on their way home. Next to a boarded up, dilapidated gothic mansion (staff housing? a group home?) are small, comfortable homes with pickup trucks parked outside. Another housing development sits cheek by jowl to a quartet of razor-wire surrounded buildings, buildings that had been converted into a juvenile detention facility.

In 2004, a real estate developer bought the property – 80 buildings on 850 acres – for the fire-sale price of $3.95 million. The dream is to build a complex of condos, retirement housing, shopping and a luxury golf course, all served by a major highway and, critically, a train station with direct service to New York City, making the housing attractive for commuters hoping to balance rural life with careers in the city. But the buildings may not be such a bargain – they’re filled with lead paint and asbestos, and renovations will cost many millions, money that might be hard to raise in this down market.

In the meantime, the hospital is strange, spooky reminder of times past… and a great site for urban exploration. The folks behind Explorer Productions got some excellent photos, including beautiful interior shots featuring everyone’s favorite shade of paint, institution green. Ryan Frazier had less luck – his visit ended in his arrest by a Dover, NY deputy and a subsequent court hearing. (No one ever said this was an easy – or wise – hobby.)

Every time I drive by those massive, empty brick buildings, I think about seventy years of stories from inside those walls. And I think about the invisible line. Twenty miles further south, and the economic forces that keep these buildings empty would be unstoppable – they’d have become condos years ago, or been razed to make room for machine-extruded McMansions.

Here’s hoping someone finds a way to bring those buildings back to life without losing all that’s strange and wonderful about them.

8 thoughts on “For the agrarian insane”

  1. Hi Ethan — I’m a fan of old building complexes like this as well. I enjoyed enormously exploring the former Sheaffer-Eaton complex in Pittsfield after it was acquired by the Berkshire Eagle in 1989 and probably knew all of its nooks and crannies better than all but a few people. Twenty years later that complex is finally almost 100 percent back “adaptively re-used”, minus a few unsalvageable parts. I’m finding that green building advocates agree that for now, it is still smarter to rehab old buildings using the best current technology than to start from scratch.

    And, the Red Rooster in Brewster is the best stop between the Berkshires and NYC.

  2. About ten years ago, when the city government of Luebeck (Germany) was selling off some of their buildings, a group of people bought and restored a large (for German standards) complex of old buildings. The results are stunning, the social alternative living well implemented, and by respecting the old and introducing the new they have shown others what the future of such buildings could be like.


  3. Designate it a national landmark and have Washington buy it for $39.5 million. 70% of the gross invested in “lobbying” engenders satisfactory net retained earnings for all.

  4. These posts of yours always make me want to do an extended zigzaggy roadtrip through the backroads of Upstate New York and New England.

    $4 M for the whole thing, huh? If there are any 40-odd millionaires reading this blog, I think it might be kind of fun to renovate the whole thing and set it up as an intentional community–say, a sort of continuing studies university, or a research institute.

  5. Researching for man buried in one of their two cemeteries on the grounds. No names,just numbers. Emailed and talked to someone(spokesman,H Dept?) They won’t give any info.Not even a yes or no to IF he is buried there. Isn’t there a “Freedom of Information Act” I can throw at them. Someone.somewhere must have the idex to who is buried underneath each of those numbers. Please Email if you can help

  6. My Grandmother stayed at Harlem Valley State Hospital from 1939 for decades. I’m trying to find some records about her, her diagnosis. Can any one tell me how to do this? Very greatful for help.

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