Onondaga County Poor House
|Onondaga County Poor House|
|Closed||1978 (The original grounds)|
|Building Style||Cottage Planned|
The Early Years, Residents
During most of the 1800s, the Poor House and its attached asylum for the mentally ill packed together a broad assortment of individuals. Most were simply poor and did not have the personal or family means for care.
They suffered from a stunning variety of social ills; an 1977 report listed: Alcoholism, Vagrancy, Destitute, Lunacy, Sickness, Old Age, Debauchery Bastardy, Blindness, Lameness, Idiocy,. Many were undereducated and poor from birth. Others had once been successful citizens, but fell on hard times. One 1871 report mentioned a young Civil War veteran residing in the "insane department," whose case today would be classified as severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Throughout the 19th century, society debated how to hand all these ills. Some citizens blamed individual moral weirdness and wanted to limit public expense, satisfied with simply locking such individuals out of sight. Others saw a need for better, specialized facilities and more targeted social programs.
Poor House admissions often depended on political connections and the quality of staffing could vary from sensitive to uncaring to occasionally brutal. Pressed by local newspaper reports, reformers and state legislation, county leaders would commit to major improvements during the next century.
The Early Years, The Structures
The first building on the grounds was a simple limestone structure that opened in 1827. It sufficed for a time, but in the early 1850's, increasing immigration from Europe and the rapid growth of Syracuse's population brought about considerable crowding. An average of 200 individual were houses at a time in a facility intended for no more than 150.
In 1854 a major addition was built, but an 1857 state report criticized the compound's inadequate care of the 16 residents labeled as "lunatics." New additions were built for the mentally ill in the 1860s. But the county facility was never properly staffed of designed for such specialized care. By 1893, all mental patients had been transferred to state hospitals.
But by the start of the 20th century, with the county population nearing 200,000, the four 19th century buildings were increasingly seen as inadequate.
Beginnings of a County Hospital
By 1900, the Poor House, now known as County Home, no longer had to care for the blind, those with mental illness or for children. But it faced a growing number of occupants, especially as Syracuse's population soared toward 20,000. And there were always sick, frail and even pregnant residents. Various rooms were designated over time as infirmary wards but always proved deficient. Pressed by local physicians and the state, the country finally relented and erected a 60-bed hospital for the site in 1900. It marked a key transformation in the history of "The Home" and of local public care for the indigent.
New Residential Buildings and a Hospital Wing
By 1907, despite the new hospital, the only buildings regularly housing residents were more than 50 years old, greatly crowded, shared by both sexes, and viewed by the state as dangerous firetraps. The country responded by building a separate new Women's Dormitory in 1908 and thren a "fireproof" brick addition for men in 1915. The latter was attacked to the exisiting row of stone buildings. The hospital, undersized from the outset, was expanded with the 1928 construction of an additional building (Now known as OCC's H-1 hall), which increased bed capacity to over 100.
The Depression of the 1930s
The Great Depression pushed the unemployment to nearly 25%. By 1931, the Home was housing 738 residents in a space meant for 500. Portions of the stone buildings, over 100 years old, were crowded and fire hazards. Most were replaced by 1932 with a new men's dormitory, providing needed construction jobs for the community.
By the decade's end, the creation of new federal social welfare programs allowed more of the able-bodied poor to maintain their own, independent housing.
The Years Following World War II
The Home's population increasingly tended to be infirm residents, requiring more medical assistance then just housing. By the late 1950s, it was functioning primarily as a nursing home and hospital. Its purpose was evolving into one of extended care and rehabilitation.
The Home took over a nearby, former tuberculosis sanitarium in 1950 to secure better hospital facilities, while retaining its original location. County officials soon realized however, that increasing state and federal regulations made the motley assemblage of buildings composing the new renamed Van Duyn Home & Hospital unsuitable for the future.
In 1974 the county decided to build a single, 524-bed facility on the sanitarium grounds. The present Van Duyn opened in 1979 and all patients were transferred there. For the first time since 1827, the former Poor House grounds and buildings stood empty. 
The Site Today
Today, the Onondaga Community College now occupies most of what had been the Poor House property. The center of the college lies in what had been the poor house farm. While the majority of the buildings of the original poor house has been torn down, the hospital extension and the women's dormitory was rebuilt by OCC and is now being used as new lecture halls.
- The following information was prepared by the Onondaga Historical Association with assistance from the Town of Onondaga Historical Society.