New York’s historic Hudson River State Hospital

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The campus of the Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York, has been earmarked for redevelopment since it was bought by the Hudson Heritage company in 2005.

By that time, most of the beautiful High Victorian Gothic buildings had fallen into disrepair and many were left vacant due to safety concerns. Preservationists were sated by plans to rehabilitate as much as possible of the original architecture in the controversial Hudson Heritage project.

The historic hospital has been plagued by a series of fires. An article in the Poughkeepsie Evening Star of February 17, 1937, reports on the second fire in two years.

The fire in HRSH’s south wing “Endangered 950 Patients” because there weren’t enough fire escapes. Another fire made headlines in the 1960s, following which a section of the affected wing was rebuilt.

Since its closure three more fires have occurred, adding complications to preservation efforts. The first was caused by a lightning strike in 2007, but the others have been attributed to arson.

The most recent blaze at the site on the morning of Friday, April 27, 2018, has devastated what remained of this National Historic Landmark. Comments by locals on the City of Poughkeepsie Fire Department Facebook page indicate that the buildings were occupied recently by a group of homeless people.

Hudson River State Hospital. Author: Hviola CC BY-SA 3.0 

An arson attack in April 2017 prompted developers EFG/DRA Heritage, LLC, to offer a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. Despite severe fire damage, it was believed that the facade of the main administration block could still be kept in situ. Now, it looks like the whole lot will have to be torn down.

The ten-story Clarence O. Cheney Building was opened in 1952. Author: Daniel Case CC BY-SA 3.0

Not everyone believes that all is lost. In their response to the news, Preservationworks: Hudson declared “Do not despair – while this is a tragedy it is far from a lost cause. This is a strapping old gal built of brick and stone by the finest craftsman of her time.” And indeed she is.

The Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane was designed in 1867 by Frederick Clarke Withers, following the Kirkbride Plan. This was a common layout for asylums built during the second half of the 19th century. It called for a central administration block with two adjoining wings to house patients.

Usually, there would be various additional buildings, including accommodation for staff and land for the patients to farm, in order to make the hospital a self-contained community.

The 296-acre plot overlooking the Hudson River boasted its own power plant, golf course, and recreation center. There was also a church, theater, morgue, and workshops.

In addition to office space and administration services, the central block also housed the kitchens, sculleries, main storerooms, library, visiting rooms, and apartments for the superintending physician’s family. Author: Nicole Compton CC BY 2.0

According to Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride’s groundbreaking philosophy of Moral Treatment – as described in his book On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane (1854) – patients should be “provided the maximum amount of fresh air, sunlight and privacy possible.” Patients would be segregated according to gender and class: a reflection of societal norms of the era.

Abandoned room on a sunny day. Most of the main building has now been extensively damaged by fire. Author: Nicole Compton CC BY 2.0

The first 40 patients were admitted into Hudson’s “healthy, healing environment” on October 18, 1871.

The initial construction wasn’t completed until more than two decades after the hospital had opened; this was partly due to budget shortages.

Various ancillary buildings were added throughout its working lifetime and, at full capacity, the psychiatric hospital held around 6,000 inmates. All kinds of mental illnesses were treated within its walls, from children with learning disabilities to the criminally insane.

Inside the Hudson River State Hospital, which was looking desperately neglected in 2014. Author: Nicole Compton CC BY 2.0

Changes in attitudes towards the treatment of mental health, including the growth of psychotherapy and use of psychotropic drugs, saw a gradual shift from institutionalization to community-based care during the mid-1900s. Like many old asylums, Hudson slowly slipped into decline.

To keep up with the new status quo, a recreation block was added to the site in 1971; however, the main hospital wings were closed down by the end of the 1970s. It wasn’t just that patient numbers had dropped off – reports show that parts of the floor had collapsed. The old buildings were already suffering from neglect.

The indoor swimming pool was a part of the Herman B. Snow Rehabilitation Center – the most modern building on the campus. It was opened in 1971. Author: Nicole Compton CC BY 2.0

Outpatient services were offered until 2003, when the doors were finally closed. The Hudson River State Hospital became the domain of urban explorers, ghost hunters, and the homeless.

Preservation groups have been battling ever since to find some way of renovating at least part of the Gothic buildings. 156 acres were sold for $2.75 million in 2005. The original redevelopment plans were to renovate the administration building as a hotel complex, with residential and commercial units filling the rest of the site. These plans had to be suspended due to a moratorium on new construction in the area.

Two years later came another blow for the developers: this one from nature.

Lightning hit the south wing, sparking a major fire that rendered the structure unsafe and left doubts that it could be salvaged.

The tragic state of the library at Hudson River State Hospital on April 6, 2014. Author: Nicole Compton CC BY 2.0

By mid-2016, the Hudson Heritage project was under management by EFG/DRA Heritage (EnviroFinance Group and Diversified Realty Advisors). PR Newswire reported at the time that “the project will feature preservation and adaptive reuse of key structures.” The plans include 750 residential units; commercial, hotel and hospitality space; and a centerpiece 18-acre “Great Lawn.”

Immediately after the 2017 fire, however, according to the Poughkeepsie Journal, “Hudson Heritage developers have said they will need to demolish every building.” The facade of the administration block, which is protected as a Landmark Building, was planned to be renovated and kept as part of the redevelopment.

Police have confirmed that the 2018 fire in the administration building appears to have been started deliberately. It is still unclear if any part of the hospital will now be saved.