Rockland Psychiatric Center

Rockland Psychiatric Center

The early morning of May 18th, 1927 is splintered as a steam shovel engine rumbles to life, it's slow-moving maws digging deep into the earth. These were the first moments which marked the creation of New York's latest psychiatric hospital, and what was to go on to be one of the largest mental health complexes in the world - the Rockland Psychiatric Center.

Operating the steam shovel was governor Alfred Emanuel Smith, Jr., who offered this quote shortly thereafter: "We need a new state hospital at least every three years to keep up with the growth in the number of the committed insane... The state hospitals are today overcrowded about 30 percent, and the census is growing so rapidly that we can't catch up."

Countless more pieces of construction equipment flowed through the property following that day, and together they slowly shaped some 600 acres into a sprawling mental health complex. Like many state-run facilities of this era, it housed its own power plant, and farm-raised much of its own food. Later on the campus opened industrial shops crafting mattresses and furniture, primarily operated by the patients who resided there. Insulin-shock therapy (aka insulin coma therapy) was introduced to the facility in 1937. This somewhat unheard of, but one-time popular process, consists of injecting the patient with large amounts of insulin, enough to put them into a coma. This was often done on a daily basis for a designated period of time, at times spanning several weeks in total. Following insulin-shock therapy, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies were also practiced at the hospital. During its day, this massive complex was hailed as one of the nations best-planned mental health centers.

Though the acclaimed facility's prosperous beginnings was thought to have indicated a bright future for the asylum, within the first ten years of operations the hospital had fallen victim to the same blight which was affecting many other mental health institutions across the nation at that time - Severe overcrowding. To further worsen matters, the drafts of World War II found much of the hospital staff away at war. This forced the center to seek out new crew members as quickly as possible. Due to this many of the personnel here were under-trained and terribly unqualified for the tasks asked of them. Further compounding things the hospital lacked the means to properly house and care for the all the patients currently living there. This found beds being placed in hallways and day rooms, creating a breeding ground for the spread of illness and infection. 1959 marked the peak year for admittance to the hospital, pushing the total patient population to over 7,000. To put that into a proper perspective, that meant there was just one psychologist for every 300 patients.

Our visit found the property in a strange state - It has survived all the aforementioned hardships, and remains a massive and functioning hospital center focusing primarily on out-patient treatment, operating almost exclusively out of new modern buildings. The original campus is left forgotten, and has come to be severely overgrown in areas. In some cases, between the trees and ivy, entire wings of buildings are lost behind the foliage of summer. As a molting insect discards its shell as it grows, this facility has shed off its former campus in lieu of impressive towers which gleam with all the promises and majesty of modern medicine. Just as the the old campus once did generations ago. Perhaps it is wished that nature reclaim the these old buildings, and with it the dark history contained within. Like many other forgotten asylums across the country, these storied grounds physically represent America's great transition in mental health care.

Much like the forest slowly hides away these old buildings, the passing of time can fog over our memories of even the most tragic events. To disregard what happened here, and across the country during this time is to deny meaning to those who lived through it.

This upper porch window view gives a good idea of how overgrown some of the grounds are.


Nurses quarters when freshly completed.

There's a building in there. Probably.

After documenting the hospital proper, we made our way over to the much more recently abandoned building which had  once housed a children's center. A place which, until relatively recently, was operating out of a disused ward building that had been re-purposed. Though lacking the historic intensity which was found in the true asylum buildings, it did contain its share of unique and eerie scenes.

The forgotten baby dolls are a bit cliche, but at least none muttered "come play with me".