H. H. Richardson Complex/Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, Buffalo, New York
In the U.S. prior to the early 1960s there was a government-run system of mental institutions, some housed in grand Gothic Victorian buildings with impressive grounds. Following changes in psychiatric treatment and the deregulation and privatization of the mental health industry, many of these structures were simply abandoned. For decades they have stood empty, too expensive to demolish. The Kennedy administration planned to act on recommendations from the National Institute of Mental Health to replace these asylums with 2000 outpatient community mental health centers (one for every 100,000 people) by 1980, only a fraction of which were ever built.
Photographers have captured these old asylums in varying states of decay.
Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, Trenton, New Jersey
According to The Kingston Lounge blog:
Many of the patient rooms in the central wing [at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital] still contain beds and furniture, and in the northern wing, many still contain belongings. This suggests relatively rapid abandonment, and the fact that apparently usable beds, refrigerators, and other furniture and appliances were not removed for use in other buildings or state facilities helps to confirm this.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, Weston, West Virginia
This West Virginia asylum is now a tourist attraction, hosting ghost tours, historical tours, an asylum ball, and stage production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. According to the official website, “The Asylum has had apparition sightings, unexplainable voices and sounds, and other paranormal activity reported in the past by guests, staff, SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters Academy, the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Paranormal Challenge.”
Overbrook Asylum/Essex County Hospital Center, Cedar Grove, New Jersey
Weird New Jersey describes Overbrook Asylum:
The hospital was laid out at the bottom of a hill atop which sat the Mountain Sanatorium – a facility used at various times to treat tuberculosis patients, wayward children, and drug abusers. These two facilities, and the many abandoned buildings associated with them, became Essex County’s most legendary location, home to escaped lunatics, troubled ghosts, and roving gangs of ne’er do wells. For a generation of North Jersey teens, a visit to the Overbrook site was a rite of passage – going to “The Asylum,” “The Bin,” or “The Hilltop”, as it was called by various gangs of teens, was a surefire way to test your mettle and impress your friends.
Unlike other abandoned asylums with patients’ personal possessions scattered all over the building, the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane in New York unwittingly maintained a goldmine for historians. The hospital kept the unclaimed suitcases of all patients who passed away there from the 1910’s to the 1960’s. When the facility closed in 1995 hundreds of intact suitcases were discovered in a locked attic space. These have been preserved by the New York State Museum and added to its permanent collection. Photographer Jon Crispin was permitted to document each suitcase’s contents, resulting in a fascinating but melancholy series of photos of patients’ personal items. You get the feeling most people assumed they would only be staying at the asylum temporarily.
Preserved suitcase of a mental patient at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane, New York
Originally, doctors thought that all you had to do was remove people from the stresses and strains of society, give them a couple of years to get their life together, and they’d get better. Eventually people realized they needed facilities where patients could come and never leave. There’s some question as to whether or not the patients themselves packed their suitcases, or if their families did it for them. But the suitcases sent along with them generally contained whatever the incoming patient wanted or thought they might need.
Overbrook Asylum, Cedar Grove, New Jersey, below: