Letchworth Village

Letchworth Village Road (at Ridge Road), Thiells

Whitman Hall, a former professional building at Letchworth Village, 2021. Photo by Random Drone Guy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Letchworth Village was a residential institution for people of all ages with disabilities. When the Village opened in 1911, many considered it as practicing a progressive way of caring for people with disabilities. At over 2000 acres of land and 130 buildings, the Village was intended for a community of 3000 residents in addition to the staff. During its operation, Letchworth Village was one of the largest employers in the area.

William Pryor Letchworth, circa 1893. Public domain. Source: Wikipedia.

William Pryor Letchworth, a Quaker, philanthropist, and humanitarian was the Village’s namesake. Letchworth traveled around the country and across Europe to study treatments and facilities for mental illness. After his successful business career in the saddle and carriage industry, he devoted his time to improving the lives of the less fortunate, especially children living with disabilities. Letchworth pushed New York State to create more progressive and humane care facilities, instead of the large institutional asylums that were common at the time. He advocated for a facility where leading physicians and researchers would care for patients. In 1907 the state approved his plan and acquired the property in Theils for this purpose in 1909. Letchworth died the year before the village admitted its first patients in 1911.

The facility was world-renowned, and Letchworth hosted courses for visiting doctors from across the United States and Europe. The village had a power plant, places of worship, and recreational facilities. Abled-bodied patients farmed communally and raised animals, making the village self-sufficient in food. The buildings were personal and quaint, compared to institutional-style asylums for people with disabilities and mental illnesses.

Despite its reputation, overcrowding quickly became a problem. In the 1960s, over 5000 patients were living in facilities designed for 3000. As early as the 1920s, accounts surfaced of overcrowding, abuse, neglect, and poor treatment. The poor conditions were made infamous by the 1972 documentary Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, which raised public awareness and sparked activism for reforms both at Letchworth and in mental health treatment generally. After the documentary, Letchworth slowly phased out its residents to group homes and slowed admissions. The facility closed in 1996.

Letchworth Village is today mostly a place for recreation. Visitors to the site see the decayed buildings of Letchworth Village covered in graffiti, with furniture left in place, and overgrown with vegetation. The Fieldstone Middle School, Willow Grove Middle School, and the Stony Point Justice Court have repurposed a few of the buildings, but most have deteriorated beyond repair. Other parts of the former Letchworth grounds are now two golf courses, the  Philip J. Rotella and Patriot Hills. The grounds, owned by the towns of Haverstraw and Stony Point, are used as a park, with dog walkers and golfers recreating amongst the abandoned buildings.

Perhaps the most disturbing visible legacy of Letchworth Village is where patients who lived and died there were laid to rest, mostly anonymously. The Letchworth Village Cemetery is in the woods, and was hard to find until the recent addition of signage. The cemetery has over 900 graves of patients buried from 1914 through 1967. There are a few headstones with the deceased’s names and dates, but most graves are marked by only a tiny metal plate with a numerical signifier. The lack of names could be because of limited funding for lives that were already devalued by society – or the shame and stigma associated with mental illness and disabilities. A grassroots campaign to honor those buried anonymously led to the installment of a plaque in 2007. The names of over 900 former patients are listed under the title “Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten.”

Photo by GeekontheWing, 2021. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The cemetery entrance is now clearly marked with signage and is located near Call Hollow Road’s northern end.

Getting there:

From the Palisades Interstate Parkway, take exit 14 to Willow Grove Road (eastward), turn right onto Letchworth Village Road, and turn left onto Ridge Road. There is no public transit to the area.

To learn more:

Peter Applebome, “Giving Names to Souls Forgotten No Longer.” The New York Times, December 13, 2007.

David Levine, “The Real History of Letchworth Village,” Hudson Valley Magazine, January 18, 2020.

Geraldo Rivera, dir. Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, WABC TV, 1972.

Turner Miller Group, “Town of Stony Point Letchworth Village Zoning Study and Recommendations,” 2014.

Magdalena Schneiderman, Geography, Class of 2021.

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