The Essex County Isolation Center in Belleville, New Jersey, is an iconic building that dominates the hill on which it stands. It has a very convoluted history and one that is tied up with another hospital that stood very nearby.
In 1896, the City of Newark in New Jersey acquired a large parcel of land outside the city. Newark already had both a psychiatric hospital and a tuberculosis sanitorium out in the countryside, but what the city needed was a nearby hospital for infectious diseases where the patients would be isolated from the rest of society.
Over the following years, various buildings were constructed to house patients while others, such as a powerhouse, a laundry, and even a theatre, were built to help the hospital become self-sufficient. There were also several acres of farmland.
However, this self-sufficiency worked against the hospital in December 1917 when the heating and lighting broke. The staff and patients suffered dreadfully when a cold snap followed, resulting in 24 fatalities and 32 cases of frostbite.
In the mid-1920s, the tri-state mental health council bought this hospital and chose to convert it from a general hospital to one that exclusively treated those with mental health issues. It was then named the Overbrook.
Like many other institutions, the Overbrook suffered from overcrowding. From the 1930s to the 1960s, there were as many as 2,000 or 3,000 patients. However, once new and drastically improved mental illness treatments appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, the numbers at the Overbrook began to dwindle.
The Overbrook limped along until the Essex County Hospital Center was opened up just down the road in 2006. This new institution had more cutting-edge programs and a better layout than the old Overbrook.
There was no question as to which was the better institution, and the Overbrook closed in 2007. Parts of it were sold for parkland, parts of it for residential development. In October 2017, the last of the buildings were demolished.
While the Overbrook was left to decay, the Essex County Hospital Center was used for a variety of purposes. New buildings and wards were subsequently added so that the hospital could offer treatment to orphans, children with disabilities, and the elderly.
It seems that over the following decades, various units were started up and closed down, although it’s difficult to find exact dates. Information from those who were patients or who visited family there suggests that the Essex County Geriatric Center operated from this building between the 1950s and 1981.
There was also the Children’s Center was around the back of the hospital. It was initially called The Essex County Emergency Children’s Center and then later the Center for Abused and Abandoned Children. One urban explorer came across a former patient who told him of the abuse and neglect that the children there suffered.
Another patient also commented on a forum to say that he was isolated at the Children’s Center with suspected polio for two months. Driving past it now, he’s glad to see the back of it. There are many similar stories from former patients on the internet, all agreeing it was not a good place to be.
There was also a dedicated ward for children with disabilities. At the time when the hospital was operational, parents were often given the option to institutionalize children who had disabilities.
In 1996, part of the Essex County Isolation Center was taken over by the Garden State Cancer Research Center. However, the Research Center only inhabited the central administration area and the right wing. The left wing remained left abandoned.
For urban explorers, this posed quite a challenge because getting into the abandoned section was tricky when there were still people using the other half. Still, the building was so grand that many were encouraged to try.
Unfortunately, after federal funds ran out, the Research Center was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2011 after defaulting on a $5 million loan. As a result, the building was fully abandoned in 2011. Sadly, numerous break-ins and fires meant that the building was almost permanently sealed off to urban explorers who only wanted to see its grand majesty.
However, the hospital opened its doors again in 2001 when several scenes of the movie A Beautiful Mind were filmed here. During its abandonment, the hospital was often burglarized and suffered two fires across the space of six months. These occurred in 2018 and 2019, both of them being deemed suspicious.
Finally, the building was put up for auction in 2015. The county was in a time of “fiscal stress” according to one county executive, and the sale of the building would provide much-needed revenue. At an auction in December 2015, the building was sold for $3.7 million to John Mavroudis of Alma Realty based in Astoria, Queens.
At the time, Mavroudis didn’t give any details on what he planned for the building, but he is quoted as saying, “We are aware of the historical significance for sure. We’re looking for the best way to use what’s there. We don’t want to disturb anything.”
Certainly, his company has worked with historic medical sites before, having turned a hospital in Prospect Heights into apartments with retail businesses.
The current status of the building and its intended use is unknown. One internet user commented in May 2020 that work was still going on, even during the pandemic, and that brand new windows were being fitted.
These beautiful photographs of the abandoned hospital were provided by the blog Vacant New Jersey. You should definitely check out more of their work at VacantNewJersey.com where you can find photographs and accompanying words.
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