Pilgrim Psychiatric Center History: Days of Past and Present

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center History

Photo: Cole Kachejian  Copyright © 2017

Long Islander’s who pay some of the highest real estate taxes in the Nation, may find this hard to believe, but in 1929, a Brentwood Long Island location was chosen by Governor Alfred Smith to be the sight of a new mental institution because of low land cost. Many years before the urban exit to the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey, land was actually still pretty cheap in “the country.”

The Pilgrim Psychiatric Center often referred to as the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center stood once on over 800 acres of land in the town of Brentwood Long Island. The center officially opened in 1931 with an official transfer of about one hundred patients from the nearby Central Islip Psychiatric Center. The center was named after  Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim. The doctor had been the New York State Commissioner of Mental Health at the beginning of the 20th century. What was extraordinary about the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center was the sheer size of the institution. The center became the largest psychiatric center in the nation. The center’s vast amount of buildings and land earned itself a reputation as a city within itself. Because of its size, New York State built within the Psychiatric Center’s infrastructure its own utilities to fuel the complex. The complex provided its own water, electricity, heat and sewage system. The Pilgrim Psychiatric Center also had its owns fire and police departments, post office, church and courts. The open lands at the center were utilized for farming and athletic fields The Pilgrim Psychiatric Center’s infrastructure echoed the same infrastructure one may find at many of New York State’s modern University’s which are usually run on independent grids.

In the 1940’s, a thirteen story building was constructed by the United States Army adjacent to the grounds of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. The building, which also stood parallel to Commack Road, was opened as the Edgewood State Hospital. If you lived on Long Island or ever traveled along Commack Road while the building still stood, you could not help but be completely intimidated by its presence. During World War II, the Edgewood State Hospital was renamed Mason General Hospital.  The hospital was named after Brigadier General Charles Field Mason. The hospital system utilized the Edgewood State Hospital building, and a few adjacent buildings that were part of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center complex.

The photograph below is an edited version from the New York Public Library Collection. The photograph displays the grounds of the Mason General Hospital from the Commack Road viewpoint. However, the trees had not yet been planted so its appears to be on open land. Once the trees and brush took over the grounds between the building and Commack Road , the view from the street became more harrowing as drivers only saw the top half of the building looming over the trees. The view of the building was a ghastly sight. There were not many tall buildings on Long Island during the 20th Century. The tallest buildings were the modern looking hotels built along the Long Island Expressway service road and on route 110. Even the factories in Long Island’s industrial parks were under three stories tall. So buildings like the Edgewood State/Mason General Hospital really stood out among the landscape of two story homes and shopping centers.

Mason General Hospital,

Photo: Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Mason General Hospital near Brentwood, L.I.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 13, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c54de190-a682-0133-e7c0-00505686d14e

What separates Pilgrim Psychiatric Center from other well-known Long Island Psychiatric Centers like Kings Park Psychiatric Center and the  Central Islip Psychiatric Center is the fact that the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center is still in operation. In fact, it was in 1996 when New York State closed the Kings Park Psychiatric Center and the Central Islip Psychiatric Center that all patients from those two centers were transferred to the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. In 2017, the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center  functions as modern day psychiatric center. The center is utilized for impatient and outpatient services that cover a wide spectrum of illness and rehabilitation issues. There are fifteen patient wards that are spread out among the grounds of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. The Psychiatric Center is also the home of many residential agencies. The grounds still employee a heavy security presence to police the thrill-seekers looking to run through some of the center’s abandoned buildings. While the Kings Park Psychiatric Center which is only a few miles north on the Sagtikos Parkway has become the ultimate ghost town, the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center remains a functioning New York State mental health facility.

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center History

Photo: Cole Kachejian Copyright © 2017

Even though the center is currently operational, there are still reminders on the grounds of the dark days of institutional care.Those were the days before the advent of certain medicines brought an end to inhumane treatments. Many of the roads are blocked off and wide open fields lay where buildings were torn down. The red brick buildings serve as a reminder of a sad time when World Wars fueled an abundance of mental health issues. So many lives were destroyed by the experiences of fighting in the wars. What sometimes may be forgotten is the effect that the wars had on the parents, spouses, children and friends of United States soldiers wounded or killed in the wars. While the wars were not the only reason so many people were committed to these hospitals, their psychological effect on society should not be underestimated.

Since the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center is still an open functioning facility, access to the grounds can be easy obtained via the Sagtikos Parkway. The facility has its own exit off the Parkway.  Exit S2 connects the off ramp of the Sagtikos Parkway directly onto the grounds of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center.  The center is not far from the grounds of the Suffolk County Community College Eastern Campus. A campus built on the grounds that were once part of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center.

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center History

Photo: Cole Kachejian Copyright © 2017

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center History

Photo: Cole Kachejian Copyright © 2017

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center History

Photo: Cole Kachejian Copyright © 2017

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center History

Photo: Cole Kachejian Copyright © 2017

Photo: Cole Kachejian Copyright © 2017

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center History

Photo: Cole Kachejian Copyright © 2017

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center History

Photo: Cole Kachejian Copyright © 2017

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