Hudson River State Hospital

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Hudson River State Hospital
Hudson River State Hospital
Construction Began 1868
Construction Ended 1895
Opened 1871
Current Status Active (The hospital has moved up hill away from the older buildings)
Building Style Kirkbride Plan
Architect(s) Frederick Clarke Withers (Grounds: Frederick Law Olmstead & Calvert Vaux)
Architecture Style Victorian High Gothic / Victorian Gothic
Alternate Names Hudson Heritage Park


Frederick Clarke Withers designed the hospital's buildings in 1867. Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted designed the grounds. It was intended to be completed quickly, but went far over its original schedule and budget and remained under construction for almost a quarter century after it first opened. The entire facility was built over the last three decades of the 19th century, at great cost. Once complete, it would be used as intended for much of the first half of the next century. As psychiatry moved away from inpatient treatments, it began to decline in use until its closure at century's end. Today, it is slowly deteriorating out of public view as it awaits reuse.

19th Century

New York had opened what has since become Utica Psychiatric Center in 1843, the first state-run institution for the mentally ill. By the Civil War it was reaching its capacity, so in 1866 then Governor Richard McCormick? appointed a five-member state commission to look for a site for a second hospital in the Hudson Valley between New York and Albany, to serve New York City and the counties of Eastern New York. In January of the following year the members reported to the governor that they had temporarily secured a 296-acre (118 ha) tract of land overlooking the Hudson River north of Poughkeepsie, formerly part of the estates of James Roosevelt and William A. Davis. It would cost nothing as the citizens of Dutchess County would be offering it to the state as a gift. Two months later, the state accepted.

A nine-member Board of Managers was created and appointed to initiate and oversee construction of the actual building. They chose architect Frederick Clarke Withers to design a building according to the Kirkbride Plan, then a popular theory for the design of mental institutions. Withers planned a building 1,500 feet (457 m) in length and over 500,000 square feet (45,000 m²) in area, most of it two wings that would house patients. It was the first institutional building in the U.S. designed in the High Victorian Gothic style. Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, designers of New York's Central Park, laid out the surrounding landscape. Like Withers, they had been mentored by the influential Andrew Jackson Downing in nearby Newburgh.

The centerpiece of his design was the administration building. The two wings, designed to hold 300 patients of either sex, were divided by a chapel placed between them in the yard behind the administration building so that patients could not see into the rooms of the opposite sex. The building and landscape plan were meant to aid in patients' recovery, by giving them adequate space and privacy and imbuing their healing with a sense of grandeur.

Construction began in 1868, with the cost estimated at $800,000. Cost-saving measures included the construction of a new dock on the Hudson so that building materials could be shipped more directly to the site, quarrying and cutting the foundation stones on site, mixing concrete from local materials and hiring local craftsmen instead of a general contractor. The board also deviated from the plan it had sent the state, in particular by building a shorter female wing when it came to believe that fewer patients of that sex would be admitted. As a result it is one of the few Kirkbride hospitals to have been built with asymmetrical wings.

Spending controversies and delays

Despite the efforts to save money, the board was slightly over the $100,000 it had expected to spend that year, according to its first annual report. The main building was completed and opened, with 40 patients admitted, in October 1871. As work continued on other structures planned for the complex, so did the cost overruns. In 1873, the year county residents had been promised the hospital would be finished, the New York Times ran an editorial harshly criticizing the board for not only having gone way over budget but for lavish extravagance and waste:

The managers have entirely disregarded the law by which they were authorized to act. They have altered the plans and specifications ... Some of the details of the extravagance of the board are amazing. For instance, the first part of the work undertaken was the construction of a reservoir, into which the water was pumped from the river through an eight-inch (20 cm) iron pipe; from the reservoir the water was carried to the hospital by a twelve-inch (30 cm) iron pipe, the engine and machinery employed being on the scale of those used in supplying a neighboring city of 20,000 inhabitants. The cost of the reservoir was $100,000. Thirty thousand dollars was expended in blasting some rough rocks jutting into the reservoir, and the Superintendent gave as a reason for this that, if some of the patients were missing, they might want to rake the bottom of the reservoir to find the bodies, and with this the rocks would interfere ... The floors are laid in yellow Southern pine, the most expensive of the flooring, fitted and cut in a way greatly to enhance the cost. The heating is arranged on a scale that, with only 150 patients, ten tons (9 tonnes) of coal per day is consumed. The mention of these items sufficiently explains the disappearance of $1,200,000 of the people's money.

Some efforts were made to stop the project, but the legislature continued to appropriate funds despite further revelations like these. Construction continued until 1895, when further money could not be found. Despite this expenditure of time and money, the hospital's original plan was still not complete, and never would be.

20th century

Buildings continued to be opened and reopened in the 20th century, and as late as 1952 the institution was treating as many as 6,000 patients. Changes in the treatment of mental illness, such as psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs, were making large-scale facilities relics and allowing more patients to lead more normal lives without being committed. By the late 1970s the hospital administration had decided to shut down the two main wings as few patients were residing in them and due to neglect some of the floors had collapsed. The state offices of Mental Health and Historic Preservation clashed over a plan to demolish the wings, even after the National Historic Landmark designation in 1989.

In the 1990s, more and more of the hospital site would be abandoned as its services were needed less and less. It was consolidated with another Dutchess County mental hospital, Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, in 1994 and closed in 2001. The center moved operations into a much smaller building nearby.

The state had decided to sell the property for redevelopment, and in 2005 the Empire State Development Corporation sold 156 acres (62 ha) including the Main Building to Hudson Heritage LLC, a subsidiary of the Chazen Companies, for $2.75 million.11 Hudson Heritage and Chazen plan to thoroughly renovate the Main Building into a combination hotel/apartment complex as the centerpiece of a residential/commercial campus, Hudson Heritage Park.

21st century

These plans hit two setbacks later in the 2000s. In 2005, the Town of Poughkeepsie imposed a moratorium on new construction while it adjusted its zoning to deal with its growth. Hudson Heritage has been seeking to have a "historic revitalization district" created for the property that would help spur its growth. Then, on May 31, 2007, lightning struck the south wing, causing one of the most serious fires in Dutchess County's history. It is unclear whether that portion of the building can be effectively restored after such severe damage.[1]

Images of Hudson River State Hospital

Main Image Gallery: Hudson River State Hospital