St. Lawrence State Hospital

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St. Lawrence State Hospital
St. Lawrence State Hospital
Established 1886
Construction Began 1888
Opened 1890
Closed 1983 (as a mental health facility)
Current Status Closed
Building Style Cottage Plan
Architect(s) I.G Perry
Location Ogdensburg, NY
Alternate Names
  • St. Lawrence Asylum for the Insane
  • St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center
  • Ogdensburg Correctional Facility (Current)


The psychiatric center came first. Initially, it was to be call the Ogdensburg State Asylum for the Insane, but the name was changed to the St. Lawrence State Hospital before the first patient was admitted. In the late 1970's, it was re-christened the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

The asylum was authorized in 1886 by the state Legislature after being persuaded of the need for such an institution in the northern part of the state. The governor appointed a site selection commission including Dr. Peter M. Wise (superintendent of the Willard State Hospital) and William P. Letchworth (a member of the state Board of Charities who was also instrumental in establishing what is now Groveland). They recommended Point Airy, a 950-acre tract of farmland bulging out into the St. Lawrence River The state purchased the land for $90,500 in 1887.

Later that year Isaac G. Perry, the state architect, consulted a group of experts to plan the asylum. Among them were Dr. Wise and Dr. Carlos F. MacDonald. Dr MacDonald was superintendent of the Auburn State Asylum for Insane Criminals and, when that was relocated, he became the first superintendent of Matteawan State Hospital (now Fishkill). Dr. MacDonald was present at the world's first execution by electrocution, and his graphic report on William Kemmler's death at Auburn in 1890 is frequently cited in death penalty studies.

Their ideas laid the foundation for the family-style institution that would become standard in the design and conduct of future psychiatric hospitals. Plans drawn by the architect called for three discrete groups of buildings, so that patients could be grouped according to their particular psychiatric disorder. The buildings would be small, not exceeding two floors, with sleeping quarters above and rooms for day activities below.

The St. Lawrence State Hospital opened on December 9, 1890, under the superintendency of Dr. Wise, who transferred from Willard. Dr Wise instituted a program of "moral treatment," designed to rescue the patient from the outside pressures that were widely thought to cause insanity. The "moral" inmoral treatment refers not to ethics but rather, as in the phrase "moral support," to "morale." Conceived before the advent of drug therapy and other medical interventions, moral treatment meant an attitude and an environment: a nurturing routine of rest without stress in comforting surroundings.

Recreation, as a mental stimulant, was an important component of the therapeutic program. Entertainments included stereopticon shows, musical and comedy productions, sleigh rides, popcorn parties, phonographic entertainments, camping on Lotus Island, skating and sledding in the winter and, in summer, river excursions on "Dorothy" (the hospital steamboat). Dancing was also encouraged, because it combined physical exercise with what is, in Dr. Wise's scale, "the most potent of all the factors of moral treatment - music."

Recreation was only one form of "purposeful activity" by which St. Lawrence strove to arouse previously unreachable patients from apathy. In 1908, St. Lawrence pioneered a fledgling occupational therapy program, described as "employment in various occupations for the purpose of re-educating the facilities of attention and volition." It would be imitated in state hospitals all over the country. Patients worked at weaving, sewing, woodworking and knitting (using wool from the hospital flock).

The hospital, like prisons of the day, resembled a self-supporting community. The farm was so productive that outside food purchases were seldom necessary; it also supplied the patients' tobacco needs. The farm closed in the 1960's, after changes in state law concerning patient labor. The land was sold to the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority for industrial development. In 1928, St. Lawrence instituted a beauty salon, another first that was soon widely imitated in recognition of its therapeutic value as a morale booster.

The nursing school was another first for St. Lawrence. When the hospital opened in 1890, there were only 23 schools of nursing in the U.S., and only 11 had been in existence long enough to have produced graduates. Dr. Wise reasoned that it would be easier to train his own nurses than to recruit them. In 1890, before the first patients arrived, he established a coed nursing school, the first such school affiliated with a state institution. No suitable texts were available, so Dr. Wise wrote his own which became the standard text in all Department of Mental Hygiene nursing schools. In 1913, the curriculum was expanded from two years to three.

In 1972, with its in-patient population declining, New York started phasing out its costly nursing schools. St. Lawrence's program, operating out of the Flower Building, was the last to close (in 1981).

Images of St. Lawrence State Hospital[edit]

Main Image Gallery: St. Lawrence State Hospital


Patient burials were held in the cemetery from the hospital's opening through 1995. Burials were marked only with a number that would correspond with a patient's identity.