Hudson River State Hospital

[Hudson River State Hospital Old Building Drawin]
When I was first went into the Jesuits over 40 years ago, I lived at the novitiate in Poughkeepsie, NY. Part of our routine as novices was teaching "catechism" to elementary school-aged children in different venues every week. One of the two places I was assigned to teach at was the Hillcrest School for Children at the Hudson River State Hospital, located only about a half-mile down the road from the Jesuit facility. Actually, the Hillcrest School was set in the very back of the property, well away from the main entrance on Route 9 and we had to take a car back and forth for our weekly visits on Saturday afternoons. I suspect that the main reason for our going there, from the point of view of the hospital, was to give the young kids (they were aged about 6 to 14 years old) someone to talk to. My catechism students, as I recall, included two young brothers who had thrown their youngest baby brother out the window and an 8- or 9-year-old boy who heard voices all the time. My most vivid memory of Hillcrest itself was the temperature inside the building. It always seemed to be somewhere between 80 and 85 degrees in all seasons of the year. I was told that the reason for this was to keep the young patients perpetually fatigued and lethargic. Whether that was true, most of the other novices and me attempted as much as possible to go outside with our young charges onto the grounds of the hospital, both to run around the somewhat hilly area nearby, play a few games like catch, and escape the oppressive heat of their institutional home. I further recall a concerted attempt by at least some of the kids in season to search out and pick rhubarb that grew along the grassy knolls near Hillcrest.

Driving onto the property of the Hudson River State Hospital took visitors into a very different world than the one outside the hospital's stone walls. In the mid-1960s, the patient population living on the grounds of the facility could be numbered in the thousands (at its height, the hospital lodged about 9,000 patients in a mostly self-sustained and enclosed "total institution" as Erving Goffman would have termed it). As our car wound its way past the older buildings on the campus (the picture to the upper left is a drawing of the original "Kirkbride" building at HRSH), we would see many groups of patients being led from one place to another by staff members while, in other spots, patients were sitting in chairs or on benches simply staring out at whatever could be found nearby. It was, I recall, a very quiet environment and few of the mostly older and dilapidated-looking residents seem to speak at all to anyone nearby. Nonetheless, the grounds went on and on and occupied many tree-filled acres.

Psychologist Michael Britt, Ph.D. offers a glimpse into the Hudson River State Hospital (HRSH, later renamed the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center), in a recently-posted podcast interview on his website, The Psych Files. Dr. Roger Christenfeld, Research Director at a drastically-smaller current facility, discusses the history and therapeutic work of the HRSH in his interview with Britt. During 33 minutes, Christenfeld provides a glimpse of why the hospital was built and opened in 1869, what life was like for many patients in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how the notion of a state psychiatric facility changed profoundly after about 1955.

Target Link: Episode 27: From Insane Asylum to Psychiatric Center: A Brief History (33 minutes, the interview is in mp3 format and can be downloaded to your computer)

Associated Resources
  • Historic 51: A website devoted to the history of the Hudson River State Hospital. Includes many images and other information (e.g., a timeline) telling the story of the HRSH
  • Kirkbride Buildings: This website has photos of the "Kirkbride" style building at HRSH, a standard form for psychiatric asylum buildings in the 19th century. As the introduction to this site explains: "Once state-of-the-art mental healthcare facilities, Kirkbride buildings have long been relics of an obsolete therapeutic method known as Moral Treatment. These massive structures were conceived as ideal sanctuaries for the mentally ill in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Careful attention was given to every detail of their design in order to promote a healthy environment and to convey a sense of respectable decorum. Placed in secluded areas within expansive grounds, many seemed almost palace-like from the outside. But growing populations and insufficient funding led to unfortunate conditions that spoiled their idealistic promise."