Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center: Testament to Changing Times

harlem valley psychiatric center

Photo: “Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital” by 826 PARANORMAL is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“He went bonkers, so now he’s ‘sup in Wingdale!” the stories would go. Just saying you lived in Wingdale, a hamlet in the town of Dover 70 miles north of New York city could get you some sideways looks and perhaps a few snickers. If you’ve ever resided in or traveled through the area, you knew the actually place outsiders dubbed “Wingdale” was no joke, and going there seemed a pretty scary proposition. Yet people went there all the time. During its 70 years of operation, the beds were full and “ Wingdale” served as a major employer for people in the Putnam and Dutchess County areas.

The hospital, before it closed in 1994, was actually called Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, formerly called Harlem Valley State Hospital. When it opened in 1924 society made little distinction on types of mental illness.Whether your type of “crazy” was a mild bipolar disorder (then called manic depression) or if you were a homicidal psychotic, it didn’t much matter. Each year the patient population grew exponentially. In its heyday, there were 5,000 houses and treated with the latest “advances” in mental health care. If you were pronounced “insane” or if you had a mental challenge and someone just wanted you gone and a doctor would sign you in, you belonged in one of its rambling dark stone buildings with bars on the windows. You could not ride down Route 22 and miss it. If you were stuck at the stoplight, sometimes you could spot a patient strolling the grounds smoking the end of a cigarette dropped by a staff member.

The Harlem Valley State Hospital was built in the Kirkbride style, an architectural hospital plan made popular by Thomas Kirkbride where buildings are spaced diagonally with enough distance between the structures to allow for fresh air and sunlight. Privacy from the outside world was also considered necessary for proper mental health care, so hospitals were built on green, undeveloped lands in remote areas whenever possible. The building design was supposed to aid in recovery. The hospital complex had its own bakery, dairy farm, bowling alley, and golf range (for the doctors, of course, who sometimes used well-behaved patients as their caddies). The hospital had a state of the art operating theatre, dental care unit, and a morgue. A series of tunnels connected many of the buildings so that and food, equipment, and sometimes patients could be easily transported.

harlem valley psychiatric center

Photo: “Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital” by 826 PARANORMAL is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In this green bedroom community, apartments to rent were few and far between, so many staff members lived on site in staff housing.During the 1930s Insulin shock treatment was introduced as a possible cure for mental illness. Many patients underwent insulin overdose with little success rate. The 1940s brought further advances in mental health care with electro-shock given to violent (or just uncooperative) patients. The doctors and nursing staff performed these treatments with the best of intentions, as these were the “cutting edge” treatment plans of the times. If patients died either from their “care” or from natural causes Harlem Valley had a solution for that as well, with their own on site cemetery, crowned with a sign that said “Gates of Heaven”. Most of the graves in that cemetery still remaining there are unmarked.

The staff who worked in the locked and unlocked wards, and adjacent buildings would usually go home, many back to New York City, on their days off. Having a train depot across from the hospital was another convenience for staff. It was also sometimes a convenience for escaped patients, who could hit the nearby liquor store before boarding the train. Like the song Folsom Prison, hearing the train pass by day and night must have been quite tortuous for some who longed to live on the outside. Many patients were caught and some came back on their own. At least one patient was reportedly killed stepping onto the tracks of an oncoming train.

New strides in pharmaceuticals like the formulation of Thorazine and Haldol meant many patients no longer needed to be sequestered from society. If they could not cure mental illness, they could at least treat the symptoms. This allowed for many patients to go on supervised outings outside the hospital, even day passes—and in some instances vocational training in preparation for an independent life.

In the 1970s and 1980s due to decreased funding and the trend toward “deinstitutionalization” many patients were let out. Some went to halfway houses and group homes, some hopped the train to the city with nothing but a suitcase and a prescription in hand. Aftercare programs could not keep up with demand and many former patients found life on the outside bewildering and frightening after spending most of their lives in an institution.

In 1994 Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center closed its doors for good but the buildings remain towering over the landscape of Route 22. Plans were in the works for the buildings to be demolished to make way for a condominium project. When that fell through years later Olivet College decided to take over some of the buildings for the Master of Divinity program. Plans are still up in the air due to health and safety issues involved in renovation.

harlem valley psychiatric center

Photo: “Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital” by 826 PARANORMAL is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One big issue with the buildings that still stand is that they are full of mold and exposed asbestos.. Every now and then a trespasser (aka urban explorer) posts a YouTube video of their journey through the ruins. It’s nothing but old chairs, rusty boilers, and file cabinets. The morgue is a popular place for Urbex fans and ghost hunters to go as it still has the slab drawers. The whole building and grounds are supposed to be haunted but it’s not worth the risk to see it. Not only are trespassers arrested, but exposure to asbestos and toxic mold, plus the risk for injury and death going through the decrepit ruins is no worth seeing the already known evidence of a former time in mental health history.

Due to the popularity of paranormal shows filming on location at former hospitals, many treat Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center like a freak show. The ruins attract the type of folks who enjoy lying on morgue slabs for a selfie. They set out on a treasure hunt trying to find old pamphlets and medical records Pamphlets they may find but the records and other important documents have long since been removed. If the silent cries of all of the unfortunate souls who were housed there doesn’t keep curiosity seekers away, the 24 hour security certainly will. Trespassing for whatever reason will be prosecuted, and it says so on signs at the entrance. Just seeing the buildings from the outside is enough as the architecture alone leaves any lover of historical sites in awe. What’s next for the site of Harlem Valley State Hospital is anyone’s guess. Whether it will be converted a place of learning, or be knocked down and converted to senior housing, its legacy– and the patients who lived there, will never be forgotten. The good news is that no one suffering from mental illness is “sup in Wingdale”–not anymore.

3 Comments

  1. Connie March 4, 2017
    • Brian Kachejian March 4, 2017
    • Virginia Repka-Franco March 5, 2017
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