Lost in the Woods

Hudson River Psychiatric Hospital

Light winds twists their way through a missing window, and silently manipulate the countless dangling pieces that form the remains of a burnt out ward. Rusted tin tiles sway gently as they just barely cling to scorched timbers - the last remnants of what were, at one time, the ceiling of a third floor corridor. You gaze skyward, out the massive hole where once a roof was found. The surreal blue skies of mid-summer stare back, only occasionally obstructed by the white clouds which slowly waft past. Here there is no differentiating between what is inside, and what is out. The two have become one through flames. Beyond the red brick walls a family of deer graze in the tall grass that has come to overtake an old parking lot. Past them, and over the sad remains of a chain-link fence, the spires of the administration building peek over the treetops. The overgrown walls of this asylum have stood for ages now, dating to the autumn of 1871. Unlike any other government-run institution of its time, the architecture found here was heavily influenced by Victorian Gothic styling. Though undeniably beautiful in its prime, seeing such an imposing form humbly receding into the forest is all but impossible to convey in written word. The surrounding forest is gradually overtaking the buildings like a slow moving wave crashing upon a massive bluff. 

As we wandered this newly grown wilderness there were times when the forest had grown so thick that it masked entire buildings behind a wall of foliage. Such was the case with a small brick structure we came upon towards the rear of the asylum grounds. Though it didn't appear outwardly special in any real way, the door had rotted ajar so we decided to peek inside. I'm glad we did, as it turned out that this small hidden building used to be the campus chapel. The stained glass windows were dark now, the light outside being blocked by old plywood boards, and the massive canopy of trees which now grew all about it. As Christina set about adjusting her equipment to handle the dark environment, I aimlessly wandered the old hall. I found my eyes constantly looking upward at the cathedral-ceiling. I wonder what it had seen during its time, and wished it could tell me. The pews were all still here, though musty and sad. The alter and choir section also remained intact, but all was dark and lifeless, as if the chapel was forsaken by more than just man.

We trekked onward, back out into the blinding daylight. We walked down a battered and disused service road which ran the rear of the grounds, squinting as our eyes adjusted to the brightness of the outdoors. Finally, beyond a row of trees and mangled fence, we caught our first glimpse of the old asylum. We could see that center admin lay straight ahead, it's wings spreading outward to the left and right until vanishing into the overgrowth. Our approach was from the rear, so we could not yet see the design work present on the building's front. However, judging from the architectural work present on the rear-facing portions of the building, we knew it would very likely be a grand sight. Like many state asylums, this facility divided the patients not only by ailment, but also by sex. To our right stretched the former female wards. Severely decayed and partially collapsed. To our left were the male wards. These were in far worse shape than the female wards due to the aforementioned lightning strike which resulted in severe fire damage. The roof was entirely destroyed for much of the wing, removing the building's main defense against the elements. We careful found our way into the severely decomposing building.

What always strikes us about these old asylums are the massive hallways. In some cases the corridors stretched on as far as you could see, eventually fading away into blackness, the whole length dogged by large lighting fixtures hanging upon metal stalks. All this space was a key architectural feature in these hospitals. There was a strong belief that open spaces and copious sunlight would aid in the rehabilitation of a patient. Though eventually such practices were proven to be without medicinal merit (though many still argue for the psychological benefits such a design provides), there is no denying that these beautiful old wards are a far cry from today's plain and economic hospital hallways. Regardless, these halls are now barren and dark, and their cavernous size creates echoes from the slightest of noises. 

Eventually we found ourselves at a massive wooden door. The lobby setting and remnants of administrative offices made it clear that this must have been the main entrance. We swung it open and once more stepped from quiet shadows into the sunlight. The sweet smells carried on the passing winds, and the sounds of wild chirping birds are all the more intense when you have spent the past several hours in cool darkness. We walked a bit out into the front lawn, or where it once was, as to get far enough away from the building to get a proper shot. Upon turning around all Christina and I could do for a good while is stare dumbfounded what we saw. This place was a castle, and though we had seen old imagery of the place, nothing could have prepared us for the impact of seeing it first hand. A tall center spire of red brick rose skyward, above the many peaks and dormers of the roof. The vista sets off a rapid firing of emotions, at first we were simply amazed by the craftsmanship in front of us, quickly though this faded to anger. Anger that such a beautiful piece of history be left to rot, especially when one reflects upon the imagination and craftsmanship present in its design. After a few moments we gathered ourselves and got to work. Still, as we were filming, it was impossible to not simply put aside productivity and just stare at the poor place. As we sat there a small group of birds flew in circles around the tallest spire, clearly nesting in the many openings in the roof. Somehow seeing that set the whole scene at peace.

There is always a tranquil beauty to be found in the gentle way in which a building returns to the earth. Here though, there seems to be something more at work. As if just below the surface there is an impossibly intricate dance slowly taking place between the old asylum and the world around it. Both moving in perfect sync with one-another, beheld by an audience of nothing.

This view from the rooftop really shows just how much the forest which used to surround the property has reclaimed the campus.

The asylum in a past life.

The hallways in the central administrative portion of the building are massive.

Some portions of the wards are severely decayed.

This old chapel is so obstructed by trees that you can literally walk right past it without noticing.