Hudson River State Hospital: A Previously “Progressive” Mental Institution in 18th Century

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Psychiatric hospitals began to spring up across the United States in the late 1800s. This includes New York, where the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane was established after the Utica Psychiatric Center became overcrowded. 

While it was initially a busy facility, it was forced to close due to advances in the treatment of mental health issues.

The Hudson River State Hospital is being built.

The members of a committee tasked with scouting a location for the hospital returned to Governor Reuben Fenton in January 1867, claiming they’d found the perfect spot: a 296-acre swath of land in Dutchess County, north of Poughkeepsie.

 It was previously owned by James Roosevelt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son, and William A. Davis.

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Nicole Compton / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The hospital was designed by Frederick Clarke Withers, while the grounds were designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead. 

The plan was to construct the facility in accordance with the Kirkbride plan, a popular theory for the design of mental institutions that stated that the environment, as well as exposure to air circulation and natural light, were critical to a patient’s treatment.

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Todd Blaisdell / Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Nicole Compton / Flickr CC BY 2.0

The hospital’s construction continued after it opened on October 18, 1871. In fact, it took 25 years longer than expected and was only halted when the state couldn’t come up with enough money to keep it going. As a result, Withers’ original design was never finished.

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Nicole Compton / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The main, administrative building – better known as the Kirkbride – was the most prominent of the Hudson River State Hospital’s buildings. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989 for containing the first known use of High Victorian Gothic architecture in an American institutional building.

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Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Todd Blaisdell / Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Following the construction of a Tubercular hospital on the grounds in 1951, the facility would go on to treat tuberculosis patients.

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Nicole Compton / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Nicole Compton / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Other structures included patient wings that branched off from the Kirkbride; Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches; a morgue; a powerhouse; the Herman B. Snow Rehabilitation Center, which provided recreational activities for patients; Ryon Hall, which housed the facility’s most violent patients; and the Clarence O. Cheney Building, which housed doctor’s offices and medical examination rooms.

Providing care for the mentally ill

When Hudson River State Hospital first opened in 1871, it housed 40 patients, but by the 1950s, it had grown to a capacity of 6,000. According to multiple sources, those who lived there weren’t just those with diagnosed mental health issues. 

Those suffering from job loss, mental exhaustion, and marital problems were also admitted, as were injured war veterans and men accused of serious crimes who used it to avoid prosecution.

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Nicole Compton / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

During the first half of its operations, the hospital was regarded as very forward-thinking in terms of medical procedures. 

Some of its “modern” treatments for mental health issues included tub therapy, which required patients to sit in hot tubs for weeks or months at a time; electroshock therapy; and lobotomies.

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Jonathan Haeber / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Nicole Compton / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Todd Blaisdell / Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

A large fire destroyed one of the hospital wings in the 1960s and threatened to spread to the Kirkbride. It was, however, halted in a connecting hallway. Even after the section was rebuilt, some of the roof beams still showed signs of the fire.

Hudson River State Hospital’s closure

As more humane psychiatric treatments became available, the need for facilities like the Hudson River State Hospital diminished. 

The hospital administration closed down its two main wings in the late 1970s, and by the 1990s, more and more of the hospital had been abandoned. It was merged with another Dutchess County facility, the Hudson River Psychiatric Center, in 1994.

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: Nicole Compton / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital was officially closed in 2003 and quickly fell into disrepair. It was soon the target of suspicious fires and began to show signs of neglect, such as peeling paint, graffiti, and crumbling infrastructure.

The Hudson Heritage project is transforming the area.

The Hudson River State Hospital was sold by the state of New York, and it changed hands several times after that. It was sold to an unidentified buyer in November 2013 and has since begun its transformation into a residential and commercial area.

 Hudson Heritage, LLC has started a $300 million mixed-use project to convert the space into commercial space, including 750 residential units, a conference center, a hotel, and medical office space.

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hudson River State Hospital
Photo Credit: kathryn / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite the fact that it is currently owned by someone looking to develop it – and that many of its original buildings have since been demolished – urban explorers continue to sneak onto the site. 

It has also been the site of numerous fires, including one in 2007 caused by a lightning strike and another in April 2018 that was determined to be an act of arson.

Read our next article about Chatterley Whitfield Coal Mine in 1937 is Now Abandoned.

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