Kings Park Psychiatric Center: The Story of an Abandonment

Kings Park Psychiatric Center is a former mental hospital that now sits abandoned on Long Island. The institution, built in 1885, housed over nine thousand patients at its peak. A sprawling campus of 150 buildings, the hospital was a self-sustaining community with farming, construction, and food preparation on site, as well as its own power plants and railroad spur. Many of these 150 buildings have been demolished or have burnt to the ground since Kings Park began to decline in 1970.

The hospital started out as a farm colony, where patients tended the fields and grew their own food. This was the primary mode of therapy at the time, before any medications were available. Kings Park was established to reduce the burden on hospitals in Brooklyn that were overcrowded. The farm colony was considered the antidote to the dense and dirty city, where patients would get fresh air and open space.

Image for postBuilding 93, the thirteen story geriatric ward, once housed over 1200 patients.

In the few years after the farm colony was established, patient populations soared. Before the turn of the century, more wards were built, as well as a reservoir, steam plant and sewage system. During this time the conditions for patients at Kings Park were abhorrent, according to an 1893 state report. The report read, ?the buildings were unsuitable and unhygienic, facilities inadequate, clothing insufficient and of poor quality, food often unfit for human consumption.?

Image for postA patient?s room in Building 93.

By the 1930s, more buildings were constructed at the hospital as the patient population rose. The hospital had its own farmland, cow barn, piggery, butcher shop, tailor, morgue, and power plant.

Kings Park was becoming an independent city, with its own high rise tower ? the 13-story Building 93, funded by the Works Progress Administration. A former ward attendant who worked at the hospital for several decades remarked, ?If there was one place in the country that was not affected by the Great Depression, Kings Park was it.?

After World War II, medical treatment for the mentally ill included pre-frontal lobotomies and shock therapy. Doctors believed that epileptic patients had improved moods after having seizures, and they wanted to replicate this effect through electroshock treatment. Lobotomies, an even more brutal method of treatment, were surgical procedures where doctors inserted a metal tool into a patient?s brain through their eyelid. The doctor would violently sever the neural connections between the pre-frontal cortex and the rest of the brain. After the operation, lobotomized patients resembled zombies, becoming passive and docile.

The patient population reached its peak in 1954 at 9,300 patients. In the years following, the population began to steadily decline due to the introduction of new drugs for treating mental illness.

Image for postLooking down a hallway at isolation rooms, Building 21.

Lucy Winer, a former patient at Kings Park in the 1960s, in her documentary about the hospital, describes her stay as ?terrifying? and ?harrowing.? She speaks about how afraid people were of the hospital. One former ward attendant in her film describes patients who were picked up on vagrancy charges and took no medication. ?It was hard to determine why they were here. But they were here.?

People could be committed to Kings Park for homelessness, being orphaned, if they were immigrants who could not assimilate, if their families could not or would not care for them, or if they were diagnosed with a mental illness. In some ways, the hospital was like a prison. It also provided a home for people who had nowhere else to go.

Image for postBuilding 21, patient wards, where Lucy Winer was housed.

Lucy was placed in the female violent ward, where patients were permitted one shower per week and the stalls did not have doors. ?The day room was filled with the bodies of drugged women. It was the violent ward but it was the quietest place on earth.?

A staff psychiatrist recalls how the attendants would beat the patients. She knew a patient who was generally healthy, but would become ?disturbed? from time to time. The psychiatrist prescribed her a low dose of medication for her illness. One afternoon while the psychiatrist was eating lunch, she received a phone call from the hospital letting her know that the patient was in bad shape. Rushing to the ward where the patient was housed, she found that she was dead, suffocated by a pillowcase. The psychiatrist explains that the attendants would tie pillowcases around patients? necks to asphyxiate them without leaving evidence.

Image for postStill life and landscape paintings were hung on the walls of isolation rooms and day rooms, like this one.

A former patient describes how he was committed as a child after escaping foster care. He was committed to the disturbed ward for adult men. Everyone in there was crazy, he says, ?screaming, walking in circles, throwing things.? Because he was small, he could get out of a straitjacket. The attendants would punish him by tying the straitjacket to a hook in the window and lifting him off the floor. He felt like a piece of meat in a butcher shop, hanging from the ceiling. The attendants could inflict whatever punishments they chose on the patients, because there was no one to see what was happening and prevent it.

Lobotomy and shock therapy treatments gave way to thorazine in the 1950s. The drug was effective, though sometimes harmful to some patients. Lucy Winer remembers it felt ?like I was wearing a lead suit.? Like lobotomy, thorazine could turn violent and disturbed patients into zombies.

Image for postOperating room in Building 7, the medical building.

Downsizing of state hospitals began in the 1970s. Patients were ?relocated? ? moved to group homes or other hospitals, or dumped in front of welfare offices in the city, when no one knew what else to do with them. The last executive director of Kings Park calls the deinstitutionalization of the state mental hospitals a ?failed policy?, because it was done too hastily and it was poorly planned. Now, many mentally ill people are living on the streets or sent to prison.

Kings Park Psychiatric Center was officially closed in 1996. Today, some of the buildings still stand, abandoned and rotting, while others have been demolished. The former hospital grounds are now the site of Nissequogue State Park. People jog and walk their dogs in the shadows of the decaying institution. Vandals have tagged the walls and shattered the windows of the buildings, while scrappers have scrounged equipment and furniture.

Kings Park Psychiatric Center is an interesting case of historic preservation. The buildings are not protected, only patrolled by park rangers warning off trespassers. Nor will they ever be renovated, being far too decrepit for reuse. Development plans have been abandoned after realizing the costs of cleanup and demolition: the buildings and the network of tunnels beneath them are lined with asbestos. For now, Kings Park will remain a decaying monument to the American mental health care system, open only to the explorers and risk takers eager to climb through the broken windows and step inside.

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References

Kings Park State Hospital ? Asylum Projects. 19 June 2016.

Kings Park: Stories from an American Mental Institution. 2011.

Kings Park Psychiatric Center ? Opacity. 2003.

Kings Park Psychiatric Center?s Building 93 ? Abandoned NYC. 17 June 2014.

Urban Exploration Resource

All photos my own.

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