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Hudson River State Hospital: Fourteen Decades of Mental Hygiene

Hudson River State Hospital

Welcome to the Hudson River State Hospital, the first High Victorian Gothic institution built in the United States. Located in Poughkeepsie, New York, it opened in 1871 and spent 140 years consuming tax dollars in exchange for housing the state’s mentally ill. It was built during a “moral treatment” era of mental hygiene and enjoyed national prominence under the leadership of luminaries in mental health.

The hospital eventually attained a peak census of 6,000 patients in the mid 1950’s before sustaining a sixty-year decline. Advances in medicine and treatments, a high operating cost, and changes in social attitude contributed to its eventual closure in 2012.

Today the structures have crumbled under constant assault from fires, vandals, and exposure. One thing still intact: A spectacular history spanning fourteen decades.

Cover photo: Hudson River State Hospital courtesy Tabula Rasa


Hudson River State Hospital map

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Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane

Until the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica opened in 1843, treatment of the insane in New York was limited to those with the means to pay private institutions for care. Those who could not afford such accommodations were left in the poorhouse, a prison surrogate that served needs of restraint and housing rather than practical therapy. By the mid-nineteenth century attitudes were changing toward treatment of the mentally ill and poor. Utica’s early successes and the aftermath of the American Civil War convinced officials to build a second institution in 1865, the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane.

The Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane was the third New York state institution built for the purpose of treating the mentally ill; however it was the first to use the word hospital rather than “asylum” in its name – a purposeful reference to the organization’s therapeutic goal and use of “moral treatment.” They believed if you could change the environment, you could reverse the cause of illness. The hospital also quickly dropped “Insane” from its name.

First Board of Managers for the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane
First Board of Managers for the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane

Hudson River State Hospital would open its doors six years after Willard, but the wheels were in motion as early as 1866. That year the governor of New York assembled a group of five men to lead a commission to procure land and establish a third asylum for the state. Selected were Abiah W. Palmer of Dutchess County, W. J. Kenyon of Ulster County, Dr. J. M. Cleaveland of Oneida County, John Falconer of New York County, and D. M. Madden, of Orange County.

The commission then selected a nine-member Board of Managers to oversee construction of the hospital. Board members were tasked with finding a location that was geographically central, easily accessible by river and rail, and in the neighborhood of a large active community. In January of 1867 the Board secured a 206-acre tract of land from the Roosevelt estate for $85,000. The parcel, which overlooked the Hudson River and was located just north of Poughkeepsie, New York, was acquired by the state after a fire destroyed the Roosevelt family mansion. Another 84 acres of land was then acquired, just east of the Hudson River about two and a half miles from the town’s railroad depot.

Hudson River State Hospital check 1867
a check from Treasurer Weeks of Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane, dated 1867 (courtesy hrsh.org)

At the Board of Managers meeting on March 28th, 1867 the group unanimously approved the nomination of Utica’s first assistant physician, Dr. Joseph M. Cleaveland, to be the first superintendent of Hudson River State Hospital. Chosen to handle the architectural design duties were Messrs. Vaux, Withers & Co.

The English-born and New York resident Frederick Clarke Withers was known for his classic Gothic revival style. Grounds and landscaping were handled by Messrs. Olmstead, Vaux & Co. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux were known for their work in NYC’s Central Park and as being pioneers of America’s Park Movement.

[ TL;DR? Skip the long version & jump to the S-I Hudson River State Hospital timeline ]



Withers planned the Hudson River State Hospital (HRSH) in observance of the Kirkbride Plan, a model popularized in an 1854 publication by Pennsylvania physician Thomas Story Kirkbride. His design enabled institutions to practice “Moral Treatment,” an eighteenth and nineteenth century approach to patient care that removed shackles and primitive instruments and focused on humane, psycho-social treatments.

The Kirkbride layout consisted of a central block of administrative offices flanked by staggered sets of wards (or “wings”), all arranged to maximize daylight and minimize visual interruptions. Withers’ implementation called for a mammoth 1,500 foot-long main structure with three sets of wings protruding from the main building in either direction. The symmetrical Kirkbride building would have offered 500,000 square-feet of interior space.

[ For a thorough list of Kirkbride Buildings check out KirkbrideBuildings.com ]

Frank Withers original design for the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane
Frederick Withers’ original “Kirkbride” design for the Hudson River State Hospital.

Each wing was capable of accommodating 200 to 250 patients. Female patients resided in the northern wings (left side if facing building) and males in the southern wings. (This would revert by the mid-twentieth century when the HRSH had more female than male patients.)

For patient classification purposes the wings were divided into nine wards: Four wards on the first floor, four on the second floor, and one on the third floor, next to the infirmary. Each ward had its own set of closets, dining room, lavatories, room for attendants, and sitting room. On the ground floor between the patient wards and the central building was a reception room that allowed visitors to spend time with patients.

Indeed, Frederick Clarke Withers had produced a grand Gothic revival set of plans for the hospital. Unfortunately, the building was never finished according to the original design. In its final form the main building had just one wing extend north from the main building and three wings to the south. Lavish spending during construction left the Board insufficient funds to complete the wings. The south wings were added over subsequent decades; two of the north wings were never built, also partially attributable to the shifting requirements based on varying patient gender ratios.

Hudson River State Hospital floor plan
Incomplete Kirkbride, but finished Hudson River State Hospital floor plan (courtesy asylumprojects.org)


courtesy asylumprojects.org



Site construction occurred over the span of a century, starting in 1867 and ending with the Snow Rehabilitation Center building in 1971. A byproduct of a one hundred year build schedule is an uneven site plan with scattered buildings boasting a melting pot of a design language. As needs and tastes changed, so did the structures: Five hundred feet from the administration building sit an angular brutalist structure, a Deco tower, and another Victorian monolith. Well, congruence is relative.

Plans for the HRSH were delivered by Messrs. Vaux, Withers & Co. to the Board in June of 1867; construction began several months later, in September. Labor and building materials were sourced locally when possible (wood was imported, but stone was quarried on site). In order to assist delivery of raw materials new roads were required, and a dock was built on the Hudson for receipt of large shipments.

A dam was constructed east of the site to provide a supply of water, which was stored in one of several reservoirs on site – the most ingenious of which was the water tower hidden inside the church clock tower. Water supply was important to another engineering marvel for the time: Every two minutes all of the lavatories in the hospital were flushed. A gallon reservoir sat above each toilet and required two minutes to fill. When full, it would tip over automatically. In an era before electricity, light was provided for the HRSH via gas through the Citizen’s Gas Light Company. The kitchen was located in the basement of the main building. Food was prepared before being transported through tunnels by tram railway to other parts of the hospital.

Hudson River State Hospital bricklayers wanted
HRSH ad for masons, circa 1868 (source)

Costs continued to escalate. At the request of the Board of Managers, in March of 1870 the New York State Legislature appropriated an additional $500,000 toward the construction of the HRSH. The next month the governor signed a bill appropriating another $250,000. Work on the hospital halted in February of 1871 due to lack of funds. This would recur in June of 1872.

The first three sections of the main building were completed by the fall of 1871. On October 18th, 1871, the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane was officially opened to the public and received its first seven patients. By the end of 1872 the HRSH had 185 patients.


Slow Progress, Financial Mismanagement

By January of 1870 more than $320,000 had been spent on the HRSH and it was still less than ten percent complete. At the time recently built Willard Asylum was finished for $389,217. The estimate to complete HRSH was $800,000, but the numbers were escalating rapidly; when the hospital opened in 1871, more than $1.3 million dollars had been spent, and the hospital was not yet a quarter complete.

Since the First Annual Report by the Managers in 1868, hospital leadership had begun laying a passive-aggressive foundation to regularly ask the state for more money. In it, Dr. Cleaveland writes Future operations on the hospital must depend on the amount of money granted by the Legislature.” It would become a recurring theme in subsequent annual reports. The Board highlighted the importance of sending more funds to the hospital and doing so earlier in the year.

An excerpt from the Sixth Annual Report reveals the Managers continuing efforts to build their case:

“The Hudson River Hospital might easily have been completed during the five years which have elapsed since the erection of it was begun. It bids fair to take ten years more. In the course of these wasted ten years, how many unfortunate sufferers from the disease of insanity will become confirmed lunatics and non-producing paupers for the want of timely treatment?”


Hudson River State Hospital Annual Reports:

[ First Annual ReportSecond Annual Report | Third Annual Report | Fifth Annual Report | Sixth Annual Report | Seventh Annual Report | Tenth Annual Report | Twelfth Annual Report | Thirteenth Annual Report | Fifteenth Annual Report | Sixteenth Annual Report | Seventeenth Annual Report | Eighteenth Annual Report | Twentieth Annual Report ]


In 1873 the New York Times ran “An Astonishing Job,” an editorial that lambasted the HRSH Board for routinely exceeding the budget through its extravagant spending. Among the accusations were that premium materials were used and the heating inefficiencies of so much square footage was not considered when the building was designed. Floors were laid utilizing expensive yellow southern pine, fitted and cut in a manner which increased cost. Excess square footage hidden in vaulted ceilings and large corridors contributed to the nine tons of coal per day requirement to heat the hospital’s 150 patients.

Hudson River State Hospital patient voucher circa 1880
Hudson River State Hospital patient voucher, circa 1880 (courtesy hrsh.org)

However more egregious was the revelation that thirty thousand dollars was expended in blasting some rough rocks jutting into the reservoir, and the Superintendent gave as a reason for this that, if some of the patients were missing, they might want to rake the bottom of the reservoir to find the bodies, and with this the rocks would interfere …”

“At this rate the committee reports that the hospital will cost not less than $3,000,000, and perhaps as much as $4,000,000.”

Battles would continue in the court of public opinion for several years. Despite the loud objections, the Managers were able to wrestle more money from the state, allowing hospital expansion to continue.


HRSH Growth in the 19th Century

It wasn’t until 1877, six years after the hospital opened, the fourth wing of the main Kirkbride was completed. By 1880 the main building group was finally finished and put to use. Amount spent, to-date, on building the HRSH: $1,789,115.88. Ammunition for the Board’s additional funding requests came in the form of overcrowding, a problem as early as 1885 when the HRSH wings  designed for 250 patients – were housing 429.

[ Did you know: In 1881 the HRSH used ferrets to control the rat population. ]

Hudson River State Hospital Central Group Blocks A, B, C
Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane Blocks A, B, and C.

Expansion was necessary. Administrators sought bids for the erection of four new Withers-designed buildings on the grounds of the HRSH. These became blocks A through D and opened in late 1889.

Blocks A and C are two stories high with day rooms in front. Block B sat between and contained a spacious dining room and kitchen. Block D was for “feeble and bed-ridden” patients and located some distance from the others; it is one story tall and had its own dining room and kitchen.

Legislature also approved the erection of two additional wards for acute and violent male patients, at a cost of $63,000. These were built in 1890. Another bill was introduced to appropriate $30,000 to furnish the buildings.

Hudson River State Hospital institutions of Poughkeepsie
Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane, circa 1895 (source)

The Hudson River State Hospital was featured in the October 1886 issue of Hall’s Journal of Health for its day school program. The school education was planned as a diversion to the patients and to act as a palliative for the monotony of asylum life. In 1886 the hospital also opened its School of Nursing, an epoch to a field not considered a profession until 1903.

Hudson River State Hospital School of Nursing Class of 1898
Hudson River State Hospital School of Nursing Class of 1898 (source)

The three-year diploma program gave students a full nursing education which consisted of internships at HRSH and college courses at local universities. Female nurses were paid $10-$17 per month and male students were paid $16-$22 per month.

By 1891 overcrowding had become a statewide problem, forcing the Legislature to pass a bill to allocate funds to the asylums and hospitals. Legislature approved another 200 beds for the hospital, but it was explicitly mandated the cost not exceed $550 per bed (or $110,000 in all for building, equipment, furniture, heating, and lighting).

The State Commission of Lunacy authorized the purchase of an additional 300 acres of land lying to the east of campus. HRSH used this land to build eight cottages designed to accommodate 36 patients each, or 288 patients in all.

[ Over its first 22 years HRSH population grew from 200 to 900 patients. ]

In March of 1892 the state appropriated $6,500 to the HRSH for purchase of the 69-acre Wixon farm. By October of that year the wards of the original main building were used entirely for female patients. At the time state of New York had eight institutions for the care of the insane. These were known as “asylums,” the exception being HRSH which was the first to adopt the name “hospital.” By law this same title was later applied to all state mental institutions; in 1892 they were all known as “state hospitals.”

In 1894 the HRSH began an annual Track & Field day competition. Known as Field Day, the event included sprints, bicycle races, hammer throwing, and “catching the greased pig.”

Catching the greased pig.


Second Investigation Leads to a Resignation

The State Commission of Lunacy opened an investigation into the financial affairs of the Hudson River State Hospital in February of 1893. Among the facts uncovered were a higher operating cost and lower standard of care than other state hospitals. The commission discovered that the hospital overpaid and used more coal than every other state institution.

HRSH also held a larger supply of meat per capita during a time when meat was rationed, and overpaid for food by playing favorites with suppliers and not seeking bids. (An alternative viewpoint justified the cost differences by pointing out the lower quality of food at Utica versus HRSH). Also damning was the existence of an executive group chef, paid $1,200 per year to prepare food for the hospital’s officers.

N.Y. State Asylum Statistics 1891 & 1893 (data source)

Hudson River State Hospital was found to be “disorderly and demoralized,” with a looseness of methods in expenditures and the audit of bills.” State senator and critic Charles P. McClelland declared:

I think the resident officers lived extravagantly, like so many lords.”

The commission decided the only solution was the resignation of the HRSH superintendent: “It is confidently believed that under the new superintendency and direction the hospital will soon rise to a high rank among institutions for the insane.” Dr. Cleaveland fully cooperated, resigning his post while “virtually conceding the claims of the commission prior to the examination.” In June of 1893 the State Commission in Lunacy closed its investigation into HRSH and the activities of its Board of Trustees, and determined the institution had been “grossly mismanaged.” The judge who presided over the case acknowledged he believed Dr. Cleaveland was not altogether to blame for the condition of the hospital’s affairs. If the doctor had a fault, it was economic in nature and by means of affording too many luxuries to his patients and staff.

Dr. Cleaveland was succeeded by Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim, at the time superintendent of the Willard Asylum. Dr. Pilgrim was elected by the board of managers as superintendent of the Hudson River State Hospital on March 26th, 1893. After the baton had been passed it appeared the claims by Dr. Cleaveland of overcrowding at HRSH had been exaggerated; a month after the new superintendent had been appointed, the hospital offered to receive 300 more patients. They began to arrive by December of 1893, when a transfer from Willard Asylum brought 150 new patients to HRSH.

[ HRSH in 1894. Patient population: 1,431. Deaths reported: 203, or just over 14% of the population. Male attendants made $18-$28 per month while female attendants made $14 to $20 per month. ]


Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim Era (1893-1917)

Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim
Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim

Under a new regime the HRSH continued to grow. By 1895 there was a 500-bed main hospital for women, 700 beds across five principal buildings for men, and eight 50-bed cottages, for a total capacity of 1,500 patients. Also in 1895 were technology advancements that brought changes in lighting to HRSH. Gas lamps would soon fall by the wayside when the hospital requested bids for the wiring and installation of 30 arc lights and 1,500 incandescent lights.

Meanwhile the influx of patients was not slowing, so hospital leadership pushed for more buildings. Legislature authorized the appropriation of funds the following year but capped the cost of construction at $125,000. Hospital administrators tried to keep costs down, however after the addition of electric lighting, equipment and furnishings, and a heating plant, the construction cost still swelled to $319,000 – more than double the estimate. Then in January of 1896, just two years after receiving them, the HRSH was forced to send 125 patients back to Willard State Hospital to relieve its own overcrowding. We suspect, but cannot confirm, that Dr. Cleaveland felt some vindication upon hearing the news.

The penultimate of the original Withers buildings to be completed was the Morgue/Mortuary and Laboratory building, finished in 1896; autopsies were conducted in this building until the 1960’s. Also in 1896, the state of New York appropriated $155,800 for the construction of the last of the Withers-designed structures. This would be the 500-bed female patient North Wing at HRSH, completed in 1898. The original Withers plans – which were never finished in full – took 31 years to build.

In 1898 plans were laid to establish a new railroad line from Poughkeepsie to the HRSH. At the time the hospital was paying $6,000 per year to transport coal from the railroad to the campus. To reduce transport costs the state constructed the East Shore Railroad, which connected Poughkeepsie and its Eastern Railroad with the HRSH. The rail line was finished in 1899 after the State of New York paid $50,000 for the purchase of the land and another $24,000 to build the line. This eventually backfired when the rail operator was accused of raising rates, which ultimately negated the savings from having constructed the railroad in the first place. The HRSH filed an official complaint, however the state commission indicated its decision would favor the railroad.

The Hour of Death by Dr. Charles Pilgrim
The Hour of Death by Dr. Charles Pilgrim, circa 1900 (source)

More bad news came in 1900 when the hospital was sued for $52,000 over damages caused by the erection of a dam across Fall Kill Creek in Dutchess County.

Dr. Pilgrim kept busy. In 1900 he released a study of statistics published in the American Journal of Insanity. The paper, called “The Study of a Year’s Statistics,” talked about the “Hour of Death” and analyzed the times of day patients died. After reviewing 231 deaths, Dr. Pilgrim noted:

An examination of the hour of death showed that 26% died between midnight and 6 a.m., 19% between 6 a.m. and noon, 31% between noon and 6 p.m., and 24% between 6 p.m. and midnight. The deaths were evenly distributed between the hours of darkness and light, 115 patients having died between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and 116 between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.”

Dr. Pilgrim’s theories were confirmed after going back ten years and examining 1,500 more deaths. Research and experimentation continued. Eight years later Dr. Pilgrim was pioneering “Tub Therapy,” a controversial new treatment. The headlines read: “Live for weeks in the bathtub.”

Dr. Charles Pilgrim Live for weeks in the bathtub
Tub therapy: Live for weeks in the bathtub. (source)

“…this is no ordinary tub. Within it is a canvas hammock with a head rest… You lie down in it and the water is turned on… There you lie, with the warm water softly enveloping you. The nurse puts a rubber pillow beneath your head. ‘Now, go to sleep’ she tells you. ‘We’ll wake you at supper time.’ You sleep. At supper time there is a dainty tray with just a sliver of chicken and a bit of lettuce, a slice of toast and a dab of strawberry jam. You haven’t eaten for a month. You have slept, however, for perhaps two hours. You are hungry. You start to get out of the bath. ‘No, lie right where you are,’ cautions the nurse…”

“This is going to be your home until we get you well again.”

Hudson River State Hospital excitable patients kept in tub

Unsurprisingly, public reception was not positive. “One man was kept in hot water for a month,” claimed another patient.

He was forced to sit there all day long with the water covered by a canvas fastened around his neck. Furthermore, he was forced to eat his meals while sitting in the tub of hot water.”

Hudson River State Hospital hydrotherapy 1935
HRSH nurse Len Peluso and two attendants administer hydrotherapy, circa 1935. (source)


HRSH in the 20th Century

In March of 1904 the employees of the HRSH mobilized to form a union. A committee was appointed in to visit the state Congress and lobby for better wages. Around the same time the hospital superintendent’s house was completed (map); Dr. Pilgrim was the first to move in. The Ziegler family sold their farm just south of the HRSH for $12,000 in May of 1904 (land now occupied by Cheney Memorial, Ryon Hall, and the Snow Rehabilitation Center). The Ziegler house (map) was later remodeled as a staff house and occupied by five HRSH physicians.

In September of 1904 the hospital held a fancy dress ball for the patients and staff. A period news story describes the scene thus:

Hudson River State Hospital Big Dance

Few sights are at once more grotesque and pathetic than a fancy dress ball in an asylum for the insane. On the one hand is a man loudly declaiming that he is a poached egg and refusing to sit down unless there is a piece of toast in his chair; on the other is a beautiful young girl dressed as Mary Queen of Scots constantly in terror lest she be dragged to the block to lose her head.”

Many changes came in 1906. Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Chapel (map) was the first religious building constructed at Hudson River State Hospital. An 80-bed tuberculosis infirmary was erected and two large sun rooms were added to cottages four and five. A new amusement hall was under construction (map), which replaced the old hall that had been transformed into a dormitory to relieve congestion. In the kitchens a new “chemical refrigerator” replaced the old iceboxes.

Hudson River State Hospital (courtesy asylumprojects.org)

Other 1906 appropriations: $80,000 toward a reception hospital for acute cases and $50,000 for a nurses’ home. The HRSH administrators also asked for $20,000 to purchase the Bech Farm, which had been leased by the hospital for the last 15 years. A 1907 request for funds to build a sewage purification plant was denied.

Construction continued at Hudson River State Hospital in 1908 with the opening of Inwood Hall and a new acute hospital built at a cost of $100,000. The new ward contained 80 beds and was specially designed “for the treatment of people who fear that they are threatened with insanity.” Citizens could voluntarily commit themselves to the Psychopathic Building, as it was called, which included a free clinic that offered treatment without the imprisonment or “stigma which attaches to an insane person.” One paper reported it “resembles a well-conducted summer hotel more than an insane asylum.” Immediately after the new wards opened, HRSH received 300 new patients from Kings Park State Hospital.

[ HRSH maintenance costs. 1886: $328,060. 1910: $567,200. ]

The patient library at HRSH opened in 1910 (map).  Two years later Mrs. Harriet W. Winslow, in exchange for $10,000, deeded her property to the State of New York for use by HRSH. In turn the hospital expanded by making additions, notably the enlargement of the reception hospital and an additional structure known as Edgewood Hall, completed in 1913.

“There is an increase of insanity in the state.”

– Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim, HRSH superintendent


Farming, Scarlet Fever, & Pasteurization

By 1914 the Hudson River State Hospital had commenced farming activities on site. Coincidentally a scarlet fever epidemic swept the hospital over the next two years. Five patients and several nurses contracted the infectious disease, forcing hospital administrators to act. Was it the food? One state commissioner reported sub-par food being served at HRSH after finding rotten eggs, “decayed beef,” and milk that was not up to standard. According to the inspector the meat was “unfit for human consumption” and “decayed in spots and rapidly decomposing.”

Hospital officials decided to start pasteurizing their milk, at the time believed to be the source of the outbreak. Authorities later announced the origins of the scarlet fever as a milk dealer selling from an infected dairy.

[ While pasteurization is common today, it was still a relatively nascent technology at the time. The application toward milk was not widely explored until the early twentieth century. In the United States it was M. J. Rosenau’s “The Milk Question” in 1912 that spurred debate on the topic. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says “improperly handled raw milk is responsible for nearly three times more hospitalizations than any other food-borne disease outbreak, making it one of the world’s most dangerous food products.” ]


Inmates and Inpatients

Those assigned to Hudson River State Hospital have been referred to as “inmates” and “patients” at different times throughout history, emblematic of our changing social attitudes toward those in mental institutions. New admissions were given a physical and psychological examination. After an orientation, each patient was transferred to the appropriate ward: Chronic, Disturbed, Epileptic, Contagious, Medical, or Convalescent.

In the early years the bar for admission to the state hospital was quite low. Mental exhaustion, frustration over loss of a job, or simply being upset were reasons enough to be committed. In other instances a disagreement with a spouse over an affair was the reason. In other instances the patients appeared to be avoiding prosecution for crimes. In 1881 a bank teller convicted of fraud claimed he was insane. A prominent surgeon went to HRSH instead of jail after doing cocaine and threatening his wife. It wasn’t until 1888 suggestions were made to require two independent physician signatures – and a jury trial – before an accused insane person could be committed. One HRSH trustee expressed the opinion it ought to be easier to commit a person to an insane asylum. According to trustee and Board of Managers member John L. Platt, “there were too many cranks loose in the world who should be in an insane asylum.

Patients at HRSH experienced a regular weekly ward schedule, starting with a morning wake-up routine between 6 and 6:30 a.m. They were washed and dressed, had breakfast between 7 and 8 a.m., then left to perform jobs to which they had been assigned (ex: blacksmith, carpentry, housework, tailor shop, yardwork, etc.).

[ Click here to see S-I’s compiled list of HRSH employee & patient deviance/misfortune. ]

Facilities were clean and generally well-kept. A 1918 report described a visit to the Hudson River State Hospital: “The hospital inside is clean, comfortable, and well fitted with proper furniture, and except for the crowded condition would be ideal… The buildings and grounds are kept in perfect order, showing care and good taste.”

Lunch was served at noon and dinner around 6 p.m.; bedtime was around 9 p.m. A barber visited each ward three times per week, and a beautician was on hand for the female patients. Medications used were Bromide, Chloral Hydrate, Luminal, and Paraldehyde. Difficult patients were restrained with camisoles, hydrotherapy, restraining sheets, seclusion rooms, and wet packs. Methods of hydrotherapy were reserved for the most disturbed patients, and included cold tubs, hot tubs, jet spray, and needle spray.

Claude Rossman Hudson River State Hospital
Claude Rossman

[ Celebrity: In 1928 Major League Baseball player Claude Rossman (pictured) died at HRSH after spending several years at the hospital. When playing for the Detroit Tigers Rossman won three straight American League pennants (1907-1909) with Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford. He was 46. ]

Activities and entertainment at HRSH followed a weekly schedule:

  • Monday: Patient Dance in Assembly Hall
  • Tuesday: Recreation / Physical Training / Walking Parties
  • Wednesday: Visitations
  • Thursday: Movies & Shows
  • Friday: Recreation / Physical Training / Walking Parties
  • Saturday: Jewish Services, Basketball (winter), Baseball (summer)
  • Sunday: Religious service for Catholics & Protestants, Visitations

No one would accuse the Hudson River State Hospital of being a country club, but patients enjoyed special events on occasion. The hospital held events so patients could sell their crafts. Baskets, crocheted and embroidered pieces, rugs, and table scarves were sold through a sponsorship by the Occupational Therapy Department.

Starting in 1908 the HRSH also held dance events for the patients. In 1909, 4,600 gifts were distributed to the patients during the holidays. In June of 1913, 450 patients enjoyed a sail to Haverstraw. In September of 1915, about 450 patients and employees witnessed an orchestra performing on-board during a sail down the Hudson River to West Point.

Hudson River State Hospital patient population over time
Hudson River State Hospital patient population over time.

Every patient had a story of how they ended up at the Hudson River State Hospital. Some of the more intriguing cases: One patient was an ex-soldier with PTSD who became a “wild man” and lived in a cave for 10 years. He didn’t speak English or use utensils and barked like a fox when approached. Another young man was committed for “going insane” after being hit in the head with a basketball. Another patient spent 16 years at HRSH for alcoholism.

Insane from cigarette smoking
HRSH patient “Insane From Cigarette Smoking,” circa 1905 (source)

One patient was committed for “going insane after being hit by a snowball,” while another was committed to HRSH at age 94 after her children had abandoned her in the mountains. One elderly woman was committed because she had become captivated by Irish ballads, and another 34 year-old woman was committed because she had “become insane through the overindulgence in cigarette smoking. There’s the story of the 17 year-old girl who went insane after rays from a searchlight entered her room one night. And then there’s the macabre tale of the mother who cut off the heads of her two children.

[ Click here to see S-I’s compiled list of HRSH employee & patient deaths. ]

Hudson River State Hospital main Kirkbride building circa 1916
Hudson River State Hospital main Kirkbride building, circa 1916. (courtesy asylumprojects.org)


Dr. Walter G. Ryon Era (1917-1926)

Dr. Pilgrim served as Hudson River State Hospital’s superintendent for twenty-three years before retiring in 1917. In May of that year Dr. Walter G. Ryon, formerly a medical inspector for the state hospital commission, was selected to become the third HRSH superintendent. First issue on Dr. Ryon’s docket was the overcrowding, by this time a recurring theme at New York state hospitals. In 1916 the State Charities Aid Association released a report showing the hospitals, with a capacity for 27,529, were treating 34,308 patients. By 1918 the hospital had a population of more than 3,500 patients – twenty-five percent greater than its rated 2,800 capacity.

patient beds in hallways of Hudson River State Hospital
Overcrowding accommodations at HRSH (courtesy asylumprojects.org)

This precipitated a recommendation to add four new buildings to the hospital: A new reception building, a building for tuberculous patients, a building for chronic women patients, and a new amusement building for the outlying departments. A bill followed in 1920 which gave 105 acres of Camp Whitman to the HRSH for use as a dairy farm. Camp Whitman, which consisted of more than 1,000 acres, had been used for the mobilization of state troops during World War I.

[ A different era: In September of 1918 a HRSH attendant was arrested for declaring “President Wilson was the biggest bluffer that ever walkedand “those that purchased Liberty Bonds were throwing their money in the street.” ]

A severe epidemic of influenza and pneumonia struck the HRSH in 1918. After two HRSH attendants died of pneumonia that October, superintendent Ryon was forced to lock down the hospital. By 1919 the now-desperate HRSH experimented with an anti-pneumonia serum. Did it work? On Christmas Eve another male nurse died of pneumonia.

A controversial and landmark bill signed by the governor in May of 1920 enacted wage increases for state hospital employees. Most significant was the 100% increase of women’s wages to nearly equal that of the men. (In 1914 women attendants made $22 per month, but by 1921 they could make $44 per month).

Hudson River State Hospital attendants wanted ad 1923
A 1923-vintage ad for attendant positions at HRSH.

Between 1922 and 1923 more new buildings were erected at HRSH to expand patient capacity. Among them was a new $75,000 tuberculosis hospital. In 1924 Cottage four, formerly occupied by female tuberculous patients, was thoroughly renovated and expanded before re-opening as the Cleaveland Home. It was named for the hospital’s first superintendent, Dr. Joseph M. Cleaveland (d.1907), and served as a rehabilitation center for female patients with chronic functional psychoses (map).

[ By 1920 HRSH had reached 894 acres in size and was tax-assessed at more than $3,000,000 in value. ]


Dr. Clarence O. Cheney Era (1926-1932)

Dr. Ryon had just nine years on the job when he stepped down in 1926. Replacing him was Dr. Charles O. Cheney, who would serve as the fourth superintendent of Hudson River State Hospital and fill the role for the next six years. Under Dr. Cheney, the second religious structure at HRSH was erected in 1926: The protestant Avery Chapel (map), built with money donated by Myra H. Avery.

The Brookside Infirmary was opened in 1929 (map), along with the Avery Home (map), which was used as housing for the nursing school. Despite these additions the hospital was still 20% overcrowded. At least 206 patients were forced to sleep on mattresses placed on the floor between beds.

[ In 1929 HRSH had a “certified capacity” of 3,338, but was housing 4,018 patients. ]

In 1930 the hospital built an auto repair shop. The HRSH sought bids in November of 1931 to build seven additional structures (these buildings would include Pilgrim Hall, Poucher Hall, the five-family staff house #4, and the Ryon Hall buildings).

HRSH photos below courtesy asylumprojects.org

(click to enlarge)

above HRSH photos courtesy asylumprojects.org


Drs. Folsom, Ross, & Groom Eras (1932-1950)

Dr. Cheney left Hudson River State Hospital for the director role at the N.Y. State Psychiatric Institute in 1932. He was succeeded by Dr. Ralph P. Folsom, the fifth superintendent of HRSH – and interestingly, the first to not have a building at the hospital named after him.

The HRSH opened Poucher Hall (map) in 1932. It was originally a residence for married employees, and later became a nursing school dormitory. Also built in 1932 were Pilgrim Hall (map), the five-family staff house #4 (map), and Ryon Hall (map). Ryon Hall, named for former HRSH superintendent Dr. Walter G. Ryon, housed the most disturbed and violent patients of Hudson River State Hospital.

To ease overcrowding, in 1931 New York started placing mental hospital patients in foster homes. HRSH began participating in 1936, sending 23 patients to various homes that year. An electrical shop was added behind the amusement hall in 1935 (map), a pair of halfway houses and storage sheds in 1937, a greenhouse in 1940, and a golf club house in 1941. Dr. Folsom served for nine years before then-director of Harlem Valley State Hospital, Dr. John R. Ross, was appointed superintendent of HRSH, effective November 30th, 1941.

[ In 1938 the hospital began practicing insulin therapy. ]

Staffing shortages in 1945 led to some attendant positions being filled by war objectors. In March of that year, 25 objectors were assigned to HRSH. This later caused problems with regular hospital staff when patient abuses were uncovered. In his book Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors, author Steven J. Taylor claims the attendants at Ryon Hall were “brutal and cruel to patients.” In 1945 four attendants were reported to Superintendent Ross – who had suspected a problem, but until then lacked evidence. Dr. Ross dismissed the four accused after he heard testimony of the mistreatment, and before N.Y. Governor Thomas E. Dewey could request a complete investigation of the alleged conditions at the hospital.

State civil service employees took issue with an alleged offhand remark by Superintendent Ross in “My Day,” an Eleanor Roosevelt column that spoke of the experiences of conscientious objector attendants. Three of the fired attendants were union members, which wrought a maelstrom in the press later called the “Ryon Hall Incident.” Another uproar followed comments from the hospital’s head psychiatrist after he admitted that 63% of his patients were sane and ought to be released.

In the fall of 1948 the HRSH opened a new food service training school, including kitchens for laboratory demonstration and practice of large-scale food preparation. Head cooks of 24 state institutions were scheduled to enroll in the month-long course. Also in 1948: Approximately $925,000 was appropriated for the building of a tuberculosis ward at HRSH capable of housing 350 patients.

[ In 1949 the HRSH had 4,773 patients. Female ward attendants worked 48 hours per week and were paid $1,840-2,530 per year. ]

Dr. Ross resigned as superintendent in 1948. His replacement was HRSH assistant director Dr. Wirt C. Groom. Dr. Groom’s reign was brief, serving in an interim capacity as acting director – but it was significant in that it was the first time an assistant director at HRSH had become director. Groom continued the status quo at the hospital, which by this time was continuing down a path of expansion.

Dr. Clarence O. Cheney Memorial Building, circa 1952
The Dr. Clarence O. Cheney Memorial Building, circa 1952 (courtesy asylumprojects.org)

In 1948 approximately $925,000 was appropriated for the construction of a tuberculosis ward at the hospital capable of housing 350 patients. A refrigerating plant was also added that year. In 1949 the HRSH announced contracts totaling $8,109,770 toward construction of the Dr. Clarence O. Cheney Memorial Building (pictured, map). The nine-story medical-surgical tower with 24 patient wards and 960 beds was named for former HRSH superintendent Dr. Clarence O. Cheney, who died in 1947.

When the tower was finished in 1952, more than $9 million had been spent on its construction. One of the first tenants to move into the new tower was the hospital’s School of Nursing.


Dr. O. Arnold Kilpatrick Era (1950-1957)

Dr. O. Arnold Kilpatrick became HRSH superintendent on August 1st, 1950. Two years later his comments that certain patients “had been used on outside tasks, such as road building, on institution grounds” came under fire from the AFL union. The union objected to its loss of jobs when the hospital allowed patients to perform maintenance and road-resurfacing work. Doctors countered that the maintenance was “one of the most effective methods” of treating patients at the hospital. Enforced idleness leads to mental deterioration,as they saidAn ensuing walkout created a work stoppage at HRSH while new bath and staff houses were being built.

Hudson River State Hospital bricklayers wanted ad 1955
HRSH ad seeking bricklayers, circa 1955 (source)

In 1954 the hospital opened the Ross Pavilion (map) as a place to house psychiatric patients with tuberculosis. NBC cameras were allowed inside the HRSH in October of that year when the hospital kicked off a public television tour of mental institutions. The telecast series was called “March of Medicine.”

The chimneys at HRSH needed brickwork repair in 1955, however the repair could not be completed until the state governor lifted his moratorium on mental hospital construction projects. This was cleared up by spring, which allowed the hospital to look for labor (see ad).

[ In 1955 the HRSH reached its peak patient census of 6,000 patients. ]

HRSH opened the first day hospital center for a new outpatient treatment program for mental patients in June of 1956. The pilot program was a study to determine the value of day hospital care in treatment of mental illness. The following year insulin therapy and lobotomies at HRSH were discontinued.

[ In 1957 HRSH directors had a salary range of $13,170 to $15,510. ]


Dr. Robert C. Hunt Era (1957-1961)

Dr. Robert C. Hunt
Dr. Robert C. Hunt

The Kilpatrick era ended suddenly with his death in March of 1957. HRSH’s next superintendent was Dr. Robert C. Hunt, named to the position on July 18th, 1957. Dr. Hunt previously served as assistant commissioner of mental hygiene at the Eerie County Department of Community Mental Health Services.

In February of 1958, the third intensive treatment unit for newly admitted geriatric patients opened at HRSH. Located in the Cheney Memorial building, it had two wards (one for each sex) with a total capacity of 60 beds. The program included medical and nursing care, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, psychotherapy, and when necessary, the use of tranquilizing agents.

In September of 1958 the Wallkill Public Health Committee showed the film “Search for Sanity” to the public. The film recorded a visit to the Hudson River State Hospital, showing the care and treatment of mentally ill patients while dealing with the research into causes of, and possible therapies for, mental illness. Interesting statistics from the 1958 film:

Hudson River State Hospital open door policy 1958
Open Door Policy for Mentally Ill, from 1958 issue of York, PA’s the Gazette and Daily (source)

In July of 1959 a community service pilot project was underway at HRSH. The hospital received $250,000 for “one of the most comprehensive programs of mental treatment ever attempted in this country.” Under the grant, coordinated psychiatric services were offered to residents of Dutchess County with the goal of determining to what extent community services can reduce needs for hospitalization. More than 600 patients were segregated from the rest of the hospital population and given their own staff for five years. Pre-hospital care was established.

Of the pilot program, HRSH director Dr. Hunt declared: There is a cultural tradition in our society of almost automatically hospitalizing any patient who is diagnosed as psychotic. Recent developments have shown that many psychoses can be treated effectively and safely without hospitalization.”

“Nowhere in the United States has any population group been given such comprehensive service for mental illness.”

– Dr. Robert C. Hunt, HRSH director

The push to treat patients with mental disorders without committing them to hospitals gathered steam in the 1960’s. Patients were responding positively to psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs, both of which were allowing many to lead normal lives outside of an institution. New anti-psychotic drugs such as Chlorpromazine (aka Thorazine) – just discovered in 1951 – were also helping, while preventing the need for institutionalization at all.

Hudson River State Hospital complete dispersals ad 1960
HRSH sells off its farm animals and assets, 1960 (source)

In February of 1960 the state governor asked legislature to end farm operations at Hudson River State Hospital for budgetary reasons. The HRSH farm was several hundred acres in size and tended by 24 patients and a paid staff. New legislation introducing a minimum wage threatened the continued existence of the hospital’s farming, gardening, and maintenance programs, which were all terminated.

Thomas Sanford SrAfter all the farm animals, equipment, and tools from the programs were sold, the land was to be given to the Hyde Park Central School district for a future high school.

 [ In January of 1961, Thomas D. Sandford Sr. (pictured) sued the state of New York and the Hudson River State Hospital for $1 million dollars after his mentally ill wife threw lye solution in his face, permanently blinding him.

Sandford charged the state was negligent in failing to return his wife, an escapee with “assaultive tendencies,” to Hudson River State Hospital. ]

Hudson River State Hospital Hillcrest House
Hillcrest House

In March of 1961 the Hudson River State Hospital opened the Children’s Hillcrest Academy (also known as the Hillcrest School for Children), located just two miles from the main hospital (map).

The school was in an older two-story red brick building overlooking a picturesque valley on the eastern side – or “upper campus” – of HRSH. The building, originally built in 1934, was renovated before its re-opening to create more of a classroom setting.

Children ranged in age from 6 to 16 years old. The Hillcrest Academy wasn’t as much an education facility as it was a halfway house for minors. It was intended to “provide residential psychiatric services for 70 boys and girls,” and to “alleviate as many of their symptoms as possible to the point where they can eventually return to their communities.”

Marist College students mentor Hillcrest Academy children 1966
Marist College students mentor Hillcrest Academy children in 1966. (source)

Its residents didn’t feel it was a school as much a prison for children, giving it the nickname “the nightmare on the hill,” “Hellcrest,” and “The House of Hell.”

One visitor recalled: “My most vivid memory of Hillcrest itself was the temperature inside the building. It always seemed to be somewhere between 80 and 85 degrees in all seasons of the year. I was told that the reason for this was to keep the young patients perpetually fatigued and lethargic.”

Today the old Hillcrest School is a halfway home called The Hillcrest House, a part of Hudson River Housing that provides 60 units of housing for adults transitioning out of homelessness.


Dr. Herman B. Snow Era (1962-1969)

Dr. Herman B. Snow Hudson River State Hospital
Dr. Herman B. Snow

Dr. Hunt retired on September 25th, 1961. It was not until September of 1962 the HRSH appointed its tenth superintendent, Dr. Herman B. Snow, formerly of the St. Lawrence Hospital in Ogdenburg. Dr. Snow brought sweeping changes to the hospital, including an open door policy and freedom of patients to roam the hospital grounds.

He believed in the omission of barred windows and locked doors, and as a thought-leader in the field of mental hygiene, Dr. Snow regularly participated in discussion panels and lecture tours dealing with problems in psychiatry.

Hudson River State Hospital patients gardening
HRSH patients gardening (courtesy asylumprojects.org)

[ In 1962 the annual salary for director of a N.Y. State Hospital ranged from $18,570-$23,500. ]

In 1962 the Hudson River State Hospital temporarily lost its accreditation because its physicians, who had come to the hospital under an exchange program from foreign countries, either did not have a license issued in the United States or they lacked a certificate from the Education Committee for Foreign Medical Graduates. HRSH eventually received its accreditation back in January of 1965 after a three-year hiatus.

Hudson River State Hospital help wanted ad 1967
HRSH attendants wanted ad, circa 1967 (source)

Also in 1962, the hospital re-opened its Food Services Training School, intended to train the unemployed to fill vacant cook positions in state hospitals. The school was financed through a $200,487 Federal grant earned in the footsteps of the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962. The inaugural course was six months long and had a class size of 120 students.

In March of 1969, the state of New York awarded a contract for the design & construction of a 67,000 square-foot rehabilitation center to be built on the grounds of the HRSH. The $2.9 million dollar rehabilitation center would offer a “full range of vocational, social, and physical rehabilitation programs.”


HRSH in the 1970’s

HRSH Rehab center was built in 1971 & re-named Herman B. Snow Recreational Center in 1988. (photo courtesy gingerslamsven)

The most modern and radical of all buildings at Hudson River State Hospital, the Activity and Rehabilitation Center, opened in September of 1971. It featured its own auditorium, bowling alley, gym, and indoor swimming pool (later re-named the Snow Recreational Center) (map).

By January of 1972 the HRSH was offering a vocational training program through Dutchess College via a $103,494 grant from the U.S. Public Health Service. In April of that year the Department of Health Education and Welfare approved a $213,000 grant for the hospital. Funds from the Hew Grant were to be used for “psychiatric and epidemiology research.” This came on the heels of the 1972 strike by the Civil Service Employees Association, which resulted in hundreds of disgruntled workers from mental hospitals, prisons, and schools walking off their jobs.

In July of 1972 the HRSH re-opened the Kingston Halfway House, previously operated by the Middletown State Hospital and closed the prior year due to budgetary cutbacks. The house, which could accommodate 14 residents and a staff of five, was a “stepping stone to community living.” In September of that year the Culinary Institute of America opened a school on site, leasing unused space from HRSH.

The HRSH was accepted by the Social Security Administration as a “medical-surgical hospital” under the Social Security Act in December of 1972. This entitled HRSH to Medicare benefits under the “Health Insurance Benefits Program for the Aged.” Four years later, a former HRSH psychiatrist was arrested for false-billing $18,000 in Medicare benefits.

In May of 1973 the HRSH authorized Dutchess County officials to acquire 33 acres of the hospital’s campus declared surplus by the Department of Mental Hygiene. HRSH had been using the area as a landfill. Coincidentally enough it was this landfill which would become a roadblock toward redevelopment forty years down the road.


Downsizing the Hudson River Psychiatric Center

In an attempt to better reflect the hospital’s changing mission the HRSH changed its name to Hudson River Psychiatric Center in 1974. But this was a formality, as the axe was already falling. Funding was decreasing as public support of state hospitals waned. The early 1970’s were the last time the hospital was fully-occupied. The north and south wards began to empty by 1975, while the remaining wards were more or less empty by the late 1970’s. The School of Nursing was not immune either; it accepted its final incoming class in 1974.

Parachute therapy at Hudson River Psychiatric Center
HRPC patients enjoying “Parachute Therapy,” from 1977 Kingston Daily Freeman (source)

A 1975 article in the Albuquerque Journal brought attention to the treatment of patients at HRPC, claiming “Drugs made them zombies.” A freelance writer committed himself for research and was given an injection shortly after admission. Two hours later he reported: I had serious difficulty controlling my legs and body movements generally, and walking was almost impossible.” Coincidentally the hospital had been working on drug study programs as early as 1972.

[ On the decline: By 1976 the hospital’s patient population had fallen to 1,780. ]

In October of 1977 an audit of the HRPC uncovered the organization failed to bill a tenant for 3.5 years of water and sewage treatment, totaling $80,000. The HRPC also failed to use appropriate interest rates when billing patients, resulting in over-payment by patients to the tune of $30,000.

Hudson River State Hospital School of Nursing banner
Hudson River State Hospital School of Nursing banner (courtesy Robert Rightmyer)

The nursing school graduated its final class on December 5, 1977, after 91 years of operation. A total of 229 men and 833 women graduated from HRSH School of Nursing.

Next to fall victim to state budgetary trimming was the Hillcrest School, which was shut down in 1978.

[ “An Honest Mistake is Laid to Rest.” In 1977 Hudson River Psychiatric Center staff mistakenly notified the wrong family when one of its patients died. The family of Ella Shaw held a funeral for their dear grandmother, but it wasn’t until the casket was opened at the funeral did the family realize the body inside was not that of Ella. Instead the body was that of Laura Shaw, a different patient at HRPC with the same last name; the hospital had notified the wrong relatives. The daughter later filed suit against the HRPC for her emotional trauma. ]

Aerial photo of Hudson River Psychiatric Center 1980
Aerial photo of Hudson River Psychiatric Center, circa 1980
Hudson River State Hospital main building rear elevation 1985
Hudson River State Hospital main building rear elevation, circa 1985

Elsewhere on campus, the Activity and Rehabilitation Center was re-named in a well-attended ceremony. In 1988 hundreds gathered in front of the 17 year-old building at HRPC to re-dedicate the structure as the Dr. Herman B. Snow Rehabilitation Center. The former superintendent just passed away the year before, in 1987. It was the last time a building at HRPC was named for a superintendent.

The organization’s Historical Museum was established on June 10th, 1982 in the former HRSH patient library. Prior to 1982 there was a small exhibit in a room in the school of nursing in the Cheney building. 

[ The main Kirkbride structure earned the nickname “Building 51” after being labeled as such on a site survey. ]


Saving Building 51

By 1979 the North and South wings of main Kirkbride were finally closed due to safety concerns after floors collapsed from years of neglect. The supervisors of the Hudson River Psychiatric Center began compiling and sending requests to the Office of Mental Health (OMH) to review and consider their request for the complete demolition of the recently closed patient wards in Building 51. According to the HRPC leadership, the 108 year-old structure had become too expensive to maintain and posed a safety hazard. The wards were deemed an “attractive nuisance” and a risk to both patients and staff.

HRPC would struggle for 11 years to have the North and South Wings razed, but the efforts of passionate supporters eventually landed “Building 51” on the National Historic Registry and secured its place as a National Landmark.

 [ By 1984 the patient population at HRPC was about 900. ]

a hallway in HRSH staff housing
a hallway in HRSH staff housing (courtesy Tabula Rasa)

The OMH and department of Historic Preservation continued to clash over plans to demolish the main building’s wings – but not before a section of flooring in the south wing collapsed and uncovered another issue: Six active steam supply lines were suspended from floor joists and ran through the entire building. The next collapse could sever the lines and remove service to all structures on site.

However in order for demolition to occur, the supply lines would have to be re-routed first. The problem? Safety concerns surrounding the crumbling south wing caused New York Telephone Company personnel to refuse to work in the building.

Those fears were realized in early February of 1988 when another section of flooring in the South Wing collapsed. This time the flooring collapsed into the basement and broke a ten-foot low-pressure steam main. The HRPC plant supervisor advised:

the building floor joists have seriously deteriorated and there will be further instances of this nature. We are taking precautions to prevent injury to patients or staff as a result of this condition, but the hazard is growing. In view of this situation, you may wish to review, again, the capital budget for the demolition of the North and South Wings.”

In September of 1988 the N.Y. Office of General Services (OGS) began investigating the condition of Building 51 to prepare the scope of work estimate for mothballing. By February of the following year the OGS finished its report. It asserted because the North and South Wings had been vacant for ten years, and since the services for these areas had been disconnected, “serious roofing leaks have caused widespread interior damage in many areas from the attic to basement and in OGS’s opinion creates a very dangerous situation.”

Another HRSH hallway decomposes
Another HRSH hallway decomposes. (courtesy Tabula Rasa)

The report suggested the wings be “enclosed and secured,” but the cost was an estimated $2.9M. The department predicted no future use for the building, and warned of the great cost required to save it: Building 51 is a beautiful old building built in the 1860s, 1870s and 1890s and it would be an appropriate National Historic Landmark only if it can be maintained. Unfortunately, the funds required for such a purpose would be extensive.”

“Stabilization is not just preventing leaks. it’s keeping it heated to the dew point. Stabilization is an ongoing expense. The question is who is going to PAY FOR IT.”

– Frank Fish, environmental consultant

According to hospital spokesperson Joseph Towers, the HRPC continued to heat the wings when they first closed. Eventually the cost became exorbitant.

Just heating the huge wings would cost the state about $250,000 annuallyTo even begin to run appropriate electrical services, you’d be dealing with two-foot-thick brick walls. For the same amount of space, it would probably cost you three to four times as much to rehabilitate this space as to build anew.”

“It’s as hard to see it languish and deteriorate as it would be to tear it down.”

– Joseph Towers, HRSH spokesperson

Hudson River State Hospital
Hudson River State Hospital (courtesy Tabula Rasa)

In 1989 an environmental assessment for the demolition of Building 51 was conducted. The evaluators reported: Because the SHPO has deemed Building 51 eligible for landmark status, we conclude that a positive declaration is warranted for the proposed action.” Thanks to the hard work of preservationists, Building 51 was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. However the designation was only for the main building and did not include the wings or other structures on the property.

A windstorm ripped an entire section of roof off a building in October of 1989. Hospital maintenance responded with a $45,000 “patchwork job.” Proper repair and restoration were not in the cards as all available funds were already going to patient operations. Rescuing a vacant building with no plans for re-use was not possible with the resources available.

“It is anywhere from moderate to a sizeable drain on our resources. We would be the first to say that no action is not a viable action.”

– John Dominguez, hospital director

In February of 1990 an evaluation team of environmental impact consultants documented and gathered information before touring Building 51. They also discussed demolition of the wings of Building 51 and a potential renovation for the Cheney Memorial Building (known as “Building 98”). Meanwhile the safety of the situation was still a concern; in March the HRPC plant superintendent asked the OMH for $60,000 to cover Building 51’s 1,254 windows with plywood.

Throughout the 1990’s, more of the site would be abandoned as state policy shifted toward a new mantra of “least restrictive environment” for patients. In 1994 another Dutchess County mental hospital, the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center (map), was consolidated into the Hudson River Psychiatric Center. Harlem Valley’s operations were re-located to HRPC’s upper campus; the HRPC lower campus, home to the main Kirkbride, was eventually closed in 2001.

Vegetation reclaims the Hudson River State Hospital
Vegetation reclaims the Hudson River State Hospital (courtesy Tabula Rasa)

[ In 1991’s TV mini-series Madness 1: To Define Madness, viewers can see Hudson River Psychiatric Center patients in the recreation room of the admissions ward (starts at 1:30. The host resumes his tour of the HRPC at 13:00). The first four minutes of Madness 2: Out of Sight tours HRPC wards during contraction. (A surreal clip: At 2:33 the host walks from an abandoned HRPC ward into an active one. At 2:54 the video shows the Snow Rehabilitation Center buzzing in 1991). ]

In 1997 the state quietly began marketing the hospital property to developers. The next year the vultures were swirling around the Cheney Memorial Building. With its “vaguely Art Deco touches” and Hudson River views, they believed it was a prime candidate for a conversion to residential apartments.


Closing the HRPC

Hudson River State Hospital Ryon Hall
Ryon Hall today (courtesy Nathan Swan)

In a metaphorical irony the shuttering process of the Hudson River Psychiatric Center was slow, painful, and took decades. By 2000 the upper campus of the hospital was still operating, but the lower campus was on life support. Various departments would unwind, one by one, as the organizational decomposition would occur for another twelve years.

In June the state announced it was selling 158 acres to Hudson Heritage, LLC, for $1.9 million. Hudson Heritage was a group formed in 1998 for the specific purpose of purchasing and renovating the HRPC.

[ New York’s psychiatric hospitals witnessed their population plummet from a high of 93,000 in 1955 to just 6,000 in 2001. ]

Hudson River Psychiatric Center Ross Pavilion
Ross Pavilion after remodel.

Cheney Memorial was vacated in 2000 while Building 51 was occupied until 2001. The remaining patients moved into the Ross Pavilion in April of 2001 after the building was given extensive renovations. It then became the new administrative home to the Hudson River Psychiatric Center (pictured). The lower campus was finally closed and abandoned in 2003; the remaining active operations moved to the Ross Pavilion in the upper campus.

In April of 2004 Hudson Heritage entered into a Voluntary Cleanup Agreement with the Department of Environmental Conservation to address environmental concerns at the site’s 2.5 acre landfill, used by the hospital for the disposal of coal ash, solid waste, and construction & demolition debris from approximately 1964 until 1974 (map). Hudson Heritage complied, but the task delayed starting the rest of the project.

In May of 2004 the HRSH Historical Museum was relocated and rededicated in the second floor in the Cleaveland Home with six rooms filled with artifacts, pictures, and information regarding the hospital. However an update in November of 2012 appears to show the museum is no longer open and in transition once more. Also in 2004, Building 51 was also placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Most Endangered Landmarks” list.

Hudson River State Hospital patient card died 1957
HRSH Patient status: updated (courtesy Tabula Rasa)

HRPC employees heard the scythe swinging again in May of 2011. The Office of Mental Health announced plans to close the Hudson River Psychiatric Center and relocate its last 150 patients to the Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg. Rockland absorbed HRPC’s final three in-patient wards and took over its outpatient treatment programs. A statement released by the OMH said “the OMH bed-reduction plan was part of the enacted budget that was approved by the Legislature that closed a $10 billion budget deficit.” Closing the HRPC saved the state millions of those billions, but it also cost 375 jobs.

The last fifteen patients were moved out of the hospital during the third week of January, 2012. The Hudson River Psychiatric Center officially closed on January 25th, 2012. After the closure of the HRPC, a handful of buildings on the property did remain in use. The Alliance, Clearwater, Highview, and Hillcrest House (pictured below) are still open and (as of 2016) are serving as crisis and halfway homes.

Hillcrest House

Hillcrest House photos courtesy Hudson River Housing


Developer Wagons Circling

HRSH patient toothbrushes
HRSH patient toothbrushes (courtesy Rick Kuperberg )

While the HRPC was being wound down, developers were working with city and state officials to negotiate a deal for the property and its buildings. It would take five years to close the deal, but in March of 2005 the state’s Empire State Development Corporation finally sold the main building and 156 of its surrounding acres to Hudson Heritage, LLC – although the price had now crept to $2.75 million. Developers weren’t the only ones excited; city supervisors were thrilled with the possibility of the site returning to municipal tax rolls for the first time since the Civil War.

Years earlier, Hudson Heritage teamed up with non-profit mortgage lender CPC Resources, Inc., to form Hudson Heritage CPCR Ventures, LLC. Together they planned to spend $150-$200 million to thoroughly renovate the main building into a “combination hotel/apartment complex” that would function as the centerpiece of mixed-use campus Hudson Heritage Park. Co-developer Gagne Development planned to build a 300-room hotel with links to the Culinary Institute of America’s future school of continuing education.

“RE-CONFIGURING a hospital into a place where people want to live is A CHALLENGE IN ITSELF. But the real challenge is getting the building back to the point where you can start working with it.”

– Alex Reese, Hudson Heritage, LLC

Hudson River State Hospital roofless wings
The roofless wings of Building 51 (courtesy Tabula Rasa)

In 2005 the project stalled when the town of Poughkeepsie imposed a moratorium on new construction to control growth. The developers sought a zoning shift for the property, citing the current zoning does not allow for the planned mixed-use community – namely their desired hotel with 65,000 square-foot supermarket and more than 780 housing units. Phase one included the main building and a portion of the north wing, which were going to be converted into a 120-room hotel and conference center featuring its own spa.

While the group would attempt to preserve the main Kirkbride, Hudson Heritage officials admitted the Cheney Memorial Building would likely be demolished. They also warned the project could take “more than seven additional years to complete” and will cost “several hundred million dollars” to finish.

Hudson River State Hospital Kirkbride tarps
Tarps patching the roof at HRSH (source).

During 2006 the developers spent $500,000 shoring up the grounds and the deteriorating Building 51. Trees were cut back, brush was removed, and lawns mowed. Support beams were installed in the main building’s wings to prop up what remained of the roof, and tarps were installed (pictured) to temporarily stave off what seemed to be the inevitable.

Regarding the three buildings southwest of Building 51 (Cheney Memorial, Snow Rehabilitation Center, and Ryon Hall): If they couldn’t be demolished, then “adaptive re-use” was planned.


Waving the White Flag

By March of 2008 the three Hudson Heritage principals had conceded defeat in their plans to save and develop the Hudson River State Hospital. Their opportunity to re-develop the property had collapsed along with the floors of Building 51’s south wing. The men sold their interest in the property to the fourth shareholder, CPC Resources.

According to HH partner Arnold Moss, contributing factors to the sale were the economic downturn and bureaucratic zoning roadblocks.

[ In May of 2007 lightning struck the south wing of HRPC. The ensuing fire destroyed the building (video courtesy retom7 below). ]

[ Click here to see S-I’s compiled timeline of fires at HRSH ]

CPC soldiered on with the plans, announcing in July of 2008 it still intended to build the 750-unit housing complex. In addition to the homes the developer wanted to create 350,000 square feet of commercial retail space. While no specific plan had been assigned to Building 51, a CPC official confirmed the south wing would be torn down.

Four years later, CPC waved the white flag themselves. In April of 2012 the developer threw in the towel and placed the property back on the market. Their asking price: $14 million. A company spokesperson cited economic climate and market downturn for the change of position.

Hudson River State Hospital historic preservation plaque 1989
HRSH National Historic Landmark Designation plaque, missing since 2012.

At the time the only other suitor was Walmart, but despite their interest town supervisors were skeptical the company could use so much land for a single store.

[ Sometime in 2012, the Administration Building’s National Historic Landmark designation plaque (pictured) was stolen. ]


Third Attempt at Re-Development

Hudson River State Hospital redevelopment EFG/DRA
courtesy EFG/DRA

In November of 2013 the 156-acre parcel was sold to a partnership comprised of EnviroFinance Group of Denver, Colorado, and Diversified Realty Advisors of Summit, New Jersey. The group unveiled a $200 million plan that would transform the HRPC into a “hub of businesses and up to 750 homes.”

The EFG/DRA plan was less aggressive than the original Hudson Heritage plan, involving less restoration and re-use of the old structures. The only building the group envisioned re-using was Building 51, possibly converting it into an 80-bedroom hotel – but even that was not guaranteed and would come down to the condition of the building, its protection laws, and the numbers.

Over the next two years the old HRPC buildings’ chances of survival would deteriorate about as fast as their condition. In July of 2015 owners EFG/DRA announced a new plan which called for nearly every building to be demolished, followed by extensive site cleanup. Demolition estimates alone approached $14 million dollars.

HRSH deterioration
HRSH deterioration (courtesy Danger Hadaway  )

Fifty-nine buildings were slated for demolition because they were eitherruined, contaminated with lead and asbestos, too costly to adapt to anything, functionally obsolete, or just in the wrong place for any economically feasible private-sector development.”

Complicating matters is that aforementioned contamination of asbestos and lead; it’s nearly site-wide. While the developer follows the rules and evaluates the environmental impact of demolition, Mother Nature, vandals, and impatient arsonists take turns assaulting the remaining structures.

In August of 2015 the Hudson Heritage Project completed an environmental scoping session, and in October the grounds were being cleared to renew sight lines to Building 51.  Also cleared were foliage around the former patient library, amusement hall, and chapel. Experts examined the roof of the main building and were gathering estimates to secure the damage and patch the holes.


Visiting the HRSH: Then & Now

Guests visiting the Hudson River State Hospital during its operative years generally described the experience in a similar manner: Beautiful grounds with rolling hills and an enveloping forest were sometimes interrupted by groups of wandering patients corralled by attendants. Hallways inside the wards sometimes reverberated with the hollers and screams of patients disturbed by different demons. Those not accustomed to the normal sounds of a mental institution might be alarmed by the typical noises emanating from HRSH’s windows at dusk.

Hudson River Psychiatric Center Go Away
courtesy Nathan Swan

Today there are no more screams at Hudson River State Hospital, just crude exclamations left in paint by trespassing youth.

Desks, file cabinets, patient records, and x-rays were left behind by various departments equally discarded by the Office of Mental Health. One room in Cheney Memorial Building is stacked wall-to-wall with nearly one hundred hospital beds and overturned mattresses. Another has trash strewn about the floor, mixed with random books, vinyl records, typewriters, and broken telephones.

In the Cheney Building’s basement, a room holds hundreds of 1950’s-era medical volumes, patient records, and floppy disks. The A/V carts, chairs, and overhead projectors were probably outdated when abandoned. The most recent original artifact spotted in Cheney was a February 2001 issue of the Daily News.

Back on the second level another room holds more junk: A patient record from 1995, Nynex (telephone) bills from 1997, and an edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal from 2000. The Cheney Building also sometimes has residents; one visitor found a tent planted in a dark corner on the 10th floor.

Cheney Building photos courtesy Sébastien Barré

The Snow Rehabilitation Center (pictured below) has suffered the most abuse by trespassers and vandals, who seem to have focused their efforts to completely destroy the building. Stone and tile have been chipped away, interior glass panes intentionally broken. The gym is covered in a layer of mold, which is actually pervasive throughout the activity center. Tasteless tagging adorns most walls inside; lockers have been bashed-in or knocked down completely, as well as most lighting fixtures.

Chalk and cork boards have become guest books for the trespassers. The indoor pool is half-empty and a breeding ground for disease. Its dark, stagnant water occasionally ripples, home to an ecosystem of God-knows-what.

(click to enlarge)

Snow Rehabilitation Center photos courtesy Sébastien Barré

Back by the lobby another water fountain lies on the floor, not-so-gently removed from the wall. The lead paint, infiltrated by moisture over time, peels itself from the walls. A dented wheelchair sits broken and alone in the middle of a corridor, abandoned and forced to live out an unceremonious existence. Perhaps an allegory of the patients’ lives.

Hudson River State Hospital Snow Rehabilitation Center wheelchair
The corridors of Snow Rehabilitation Center are trashed today. (courtesy Nathan Swan)


S-I recommends this tour inside the HRSH, courtesy Nathan Swan:



Preservationworks: Hudson tells us the Hudson River State Hospital never buried the deceased on site. The bodies of unclaimed HRSH patients were buried at Poughkeepsie’s Rural Cemetery in numbered graves. Former HRPC research director Dr. Roger Christenfeld confirms the hospital “never had its own cemetery.”

Thinking of exploring Hudson River State Hospital? Probably not the best of ideas. The grounds are patrolled by off-duty police officers in unmarked vehicles. They will not hesitate to arrest trespassers and charge violators with misdemeanors – even those who only bring a camera. Safety is another concern, both in the condition of the collapsing structures and crime. In March of 2015 the body of a local woman was found slain by one of the buildings.

(click to enlarge)

photos courtesy Tabula Rasa

For nearly 150 years the Hudson River State Hospital campus and its 111 buildings were the entire world for tens of thousands of patients, many of whom spent entire lifetimes at the hospital. HRSH’s history is full of ups and downs, and acts as a surrogate for the timeline of advancements, experiments, and therapies in mental hygiene.

When it comes to treating those with mental illness, there is still work to be done. But as the Hudson River State Hospital demonstrates, there has also been significant progress.

– FIN –

Hudson River State Hospital overgrown entry 2015
Overgrown HRSH entrance in 2015. (courtesy Tabula Rasa)

[ TL;DR? Jump to the S-I Hudson River State Hospital timeline ]


A special thanks to Preservationworks and Preservationworks: Hudson for their tireless volunteers who have done the hard work to raise awareness.


For information about deceased family that were patients of Hudson River State Hospital, contact:

NYS Office of Mental Health

Consumer Affairs Bureau

44 Holland Ave., 8th floor

Albany, NY 12229


How did HRSH’s contemporaries fare? Willard Asylum was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 before it closed in 1995. Today it is Internet-famous for the 400 suitcases found in its attic that belonged to former patients.

Utica crib
Utica Crib.

Utica was closed in 1978 and its wings have been demolished, but its “Old Main” is still standing; it was designed a National Historic Landmark in 1989, and in 2004 a portion was re-used as a records repository. Binghamton closed in 1993 and made it on the list of historic landmarks in 1997; it is currently under renovation. 

Buffalos patient pavilions were used until the 1970’s; it was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1973 and became National Historic Landmark in 1986.  Middletown has arguably fared the worst; it closed in 2006, has failed to earn protection status, and after a recent fire to one of its last buildings, it is also at risk for demolition and total loss.


Site Maps & Legend

S-I’s HRSH site map legend (click to enlarge)


[ Want more Hudson River State Hospital? Read S-I’s HRSH data page which contains a timeline, record of hospital fires, and employee & patient deviance/deaths. ]