By Joseph McMahon, Environmental Studies, Class of 2024.
Opened in 1871, the Hudson River State Hospital was pivotal in the creation of new bases for mental health treatment. Yet, to this day, a history of community discontent, suffering, and social change has shaped public sentiment about the hospital complex. The institution gradually shut down between 1994 and 2002. The image of the hospital complex recently became an issue for its redevelopment into a contemporary, but historically landmarked residential and commercial complex.
Initially designed by architect Frederick Clarke Weathers, the Hudson River State Hospital with its eventual nine supporting buildings displayed grand Victorian Gothic and Renaissance Revival styles. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux designed the landscape of the 200-acre complex. Built upon the banks of the Hudson River and influenced by the movement to create more humane asylums and psychiatric hospitals, the Hudson River State Hospital’s lush grounds speak to these beliefs. Under the model set by Dorthea Dix and Thomas Kirkbride, the movement would aim to create a livable space for the mentally ill, as opposed to the prisons and harsh systems of previous asylums often fraught with abuse.
With the impressive architecture and landscapes for patients to wander and explore, and a variety of forms of entertainment like game rooms, greenhouses, and even an ice cream parlor, the Hudson River State Hospital intended that the environment of the hospital and its amenities would play a part in curing patients. Evidence of such beliefs can be further seen through the buildings on the grounds, particularly the main building, “The Kirkbride,” acting for administrative purposes and patient wings separated by sex. Four wards were built off of the main building on two floors, with connecting corridors to the separate wings designed to act as minor conservatories. Much care was taken to give the Kirkbride an initial cheerful effect to patients and visitors, and initial amenities included cold air shafts and steam heat as well as apartments fitted with dirty linen shafts, bathrooms with screened dressing rooms, and often large dining rooms in each ward. Although initially given $100,000 in funds to build the hospital, construction costs had already risen to over a million dollars by the following year.
The hospital continued to expand with impressive additions such as a Roman Catholic and Presbyterian Church, a blacksmith shop, a library, and a large pavilion as well as the Herman B. Snow Rehabilitation Center that furthered the beliefs of Kirkbride and Dix, as it contained a pool, two bowling alleys, a basketball court, and an auditorium for the leisure of patients. Medical buildings such as the Clarence O’Cheney building provided medical offices and examination rooms while Ryon Hall housed criminally ill patients. The Hudson River State Hospital also contained a morgue and a powerhouse for the rest of the facility.
The Hudson River State Hospital faced many critical issues that eventually led to the deinstitutionalization of its patients and the abandonment of the facility. While the hospital initially proved successful, it soon faced vast overcrowding problems, housing nearly 6,000 patients, far more than ever planned. The facility, touted for its innovative approaches and size, received patients from all across the Hudson Valley and New York State. Other city and town hospitals sent their patients, coining the phrase “send them to Poughkeepsie.” Patient wings were overcrowded, possibly best exemplified by the partial use of the Clarence O’Cheney building for housing, and worsened by the fact that only two of the female wards in the Kirkbride building were constructed, due to poor planning.
In the mid-20th century, Kirkbride hospitals across America began to fall out of favor with the public. The original claims of being more humane were refuted through continued “treatments” of lobotomies and shock therapy in combination with overcrowding. As psychiatric institutions started to see new treatments, medications, talk therapy, and at-home treatments, the Hudson River Psychiatric Center’s patient population dropped. A wing of the Kirkbride building caught fire in the 1960s, forcing more wards to close due to neglect.
The decentralization of mental health facilities became a growing movement in the late 20th century, making the hospital’s massive structure subject to downsizing. While cottages were constructed for patients given certain clearance and modifications made to restructure previously built wings, bed availability increased rapidly. The property itself would be purchased and the responsibility of its upkeep would be assigned to several different corporations and groups, leading to overall negligence of the property. By the 1990s, much of the hospital was largely abandoned or consolidated. In 1994, the hospital merged with the Hudson Valley Psychiatric Center. In 2001, the Kirkbride building closed down, and by 2003 the hospital shut down completely. Since being abandoned, the site of the Hudson River State Hospital has seen further structural damage with continued weathering problems and arson fires.
The status of the previous patients of the hospital is a source of controversy: the deinstitutionalization designed to return patients to their former residences, guardians, or community facilities often failed to account for the many patients who did not have homes to return to. Their previous communities were ill-equipped to deal with the patients and their continued mental health needs. Patients across New York then faced a lack of care. Trans-institutionalization often forcibly sent them to care centers or hospitals that could not provide continued treatment. Without the proper facilities for their needs, many former patients faced homelessness or incarceration in prisons, creating a cyclical pattern of abuse for those with pressing mental health needs due to a system unable to provide adequate care.
In 2005, New York State sold the property to Hudson Heritage, a subsidiary of the Chazen Companies, planning to redevelop it as a commercial campus with a hotel, apartments, business, and a park. The new complex will incorporate vestiges of the landmarked Kirkbride building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Within this context of historic preservation, the companies are renovating and reshaping the former hospital’s narrative. The famous Kirkbride building is now under redesign. Although the Clarence O’Cheney building suffered demolition in 2020, Hudson Heritage plans to retain aspects of other buildings in its complex.
With an estimated 750 residential units, 350,000 square feet for retail space, and a proposed hotel for tourists, the Hudson Heritage website has little mention of the previous psychiatric facility, continuing the stigmatization of mental illness. Hudson Heritage has already seen leased retail space from a supermarket and four fast-food companies, along with campaigns to attract affluent residents. The proposed plan has tried to disassociate itself from the historical context of the hospital, modifying the historic architecture through what they renovate or destroy. The goal is to create a façade of historic beauty. By sanitizing the history of the former hospital, removing the legacies of abuse, and ignoring the struggles of the patients who face trans-institutionalization, Hudson Heritage aims to reshape the collective place memory. With the site’s redevelopment into an upscale complex of residence, commerce, and recreation, the new complex ignores the people once so impacted by the Hudson River State Hospital.
Set just above the Marist College campus along the Hudson River, Hudson Heritage is still in development. While remnants of the Kirkbride building remain, most of the other medical offices have been demolished. Hudson Heritage will be right across from the Fern Tor nature preserve. Currently, due to the ongoing construction and site monitoring, it is not recommended that you explore the old Hospital.
To learn more:
C.J. Hughes. “Hudson Valley Psychiatric Hospitals: Insane Asylums and Psych Centers of Upstate NY.” Hudson Valley Magazine, May 15, 2023.
EFG/Saber Heritage. “Hudson Heritage, Town of Poughkeepsie,” accessed September 29, 2023.
Amy Heiden, Amy. “Hudson River State Hospital, New York.” Photography accessed November 16, 2023.
National Trust for Historic Places. “Hudson River Psychiatric Center, Main Building.” National Parks Service, listed February 9, 1989.
Sucato, Sabrina. “Poughkeepsie’s Abandoned Psychiatric Hospital Gets an Update.” Hudson Valley Magazine, June 30, 2020.