Thursday, December 3, 2015

The New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum at Morristown

The story of New Jersey's second lunatic asylum goes back to 1871. After spending countless hours scouring over 40 locations all over northern New Jersey, land in what was then Morristown was chosen to house the new state psychiatric hospital. The state hospital in Trenton was overcrowded, a problem the state sought to avoid when building the new Morristown facility.

The building was designed according to the Kirkbride plan. Two large wings stretched out from behind the central administration building. The wards were stacked three high in a linear pattern joined at right angles, like a wide V shape. This floor plan was intended to offer each room an unobstructed view of the scenic landscape. The wards closest to the administration building were reserved for the most civil patients, while the wards at the extreme ends were for the most violent cases. Part of the "Kirkbride Plan" was that patients would work their way from whatever ward they were in towards the center where they would eventually walk out the front doors upon discharge.

At 650,000 square feet, the new hospital was the largest building on a single foundation in the entire country at the time. Architect Samuel Sloan was hired to design the building in Second Empire Victorian fashion. The administration building was a true work of art. With a large conference room, beautiful chapel, intricate floor tiles and extravagant oak trim, the facility truly lived up to the moniker "The crown jewel of Morris County".

By 1876 the facility was open and accepting transfers from Trenton. The new facility was a much nicer environment than the Trenton hospital. Patients had much more room, the common rooms were spacious and filled with nice furniture, and the grounds were pastoral and undeveloped. However, this paradise would be painfully short lived.

In just four short years, the building was already more than thirty percent over capacity. The building was meant to hold six hundred patients, but by the mid 1880's it was holding nearly 1,000. In 1887, the attic space and common rooms were renovated to instead house more patients. In the late 1800's more and more county facilities were popping up around the state, including the Overbrook Hospital in Essex County and the Lakeland Hospital in Camden County. However, overcrowding would continue to be a major problem at the hospital, and in 1901 a large annex building was built behind the Kirkbride.

The 1900's would bring significant change to the hospital. In the early 1900's, new techniques for treating mental illness were gaining popularity. Hydrotherapy and Electroconvulsive Therapy were among the most common. In 1906, a new cottage was built on the grounds. Three years later, in an attempt to further reduce overcrowding at Greystone, the Overbrook Hospital underwent a massive expansion. Five new two story dormitories were built, along with a new administration building, kitchen, and dining areas.

It wasn't until the 1920's that the hospital would finally begin to see some more improvement and relief. In 1924, the name of the facility was changed to Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. Three years later in 1927, a new reception building was built and named in honor of the hospital supervisor Marcus Curry.

Two large fires struck the Kirkbride in 1929 and again in 1930. Rather than demolishing the building, it was extensively renovated into a much simpler design. The second empire roofs were striped and replaced with a regular flat design. The administration building was also redesigned and capped with a blunt dome.

In 1947, researchers from Columbia University began a groundbreaking study at the Greystone Hospital. The "Columbia-Greystone Project" sought to examine the methods of administration of the pre-frontal lobotomy in order to determine the most effective areas to target. This was to combat the negative side effects, which included "mental dullness". The end result of the project concluded that the lobotomy was a mostly ineffective procedure, which contributed to the procedure slowly falling out of practice.

By 1953, Greystone hit its peak patient population at 7674. Patients were warehoused in the hospital, which had significantly fewer doctors than it should have. The other psychiatric hospitals in the state were all in the same position. They were all looking for a cheap, effective treatment.

In the mid 1950's, a new drug named Thorazine was becoming popular in psych hospitals across the country. It showed remarkable success in helping curb the symptoms of several mental illnesses. The drug helped the hospital get a grip on its patient population. Instead of  more patient dormitories, the next building built on the campus was the Abell building, which was a school building for patients. The building featured a large auditorium and two levels of classroom space.

Thankfully, the patient population began to dwindle in the 1960's. More and more new drugs were hitting the shelves and their effect was being seen all across the country. In the 1970's, new medicines were invented to help treat tuberculosis as well, and because of this the chest building closed. In 1975 the clinic building closed, and just a year later the Curry building was shut down as well. The Kirkbride building was also slowly being shut down as well, starting with the wards on the far ends.

A lawsuit was filed against the state DHS in 1977, due to the substandard living conditions for patients at the facility. The old buildings were showing their age, and there were numerous reports of physical and sexual abuse at the facility. The lawsuit, dubbed Doe V. Klein, started a monitoring program that would seek to ensure that the patients at the hospital would never again live in squalor.

In 1982, due to the push to get patients out of large institutions and into smaller home like settings, 20 group homes were built north of the Kirkbride. Buildings continued to close, including the employee dining hall, the last building in the curry complex left open. By 1988, the Kirkbride building was emptied of all residents. It was now solely for administrative purposes.

In 1992, the large annex dormitory behind the Kirkbride closed. It was clear by now that the hospital had seen its best days, and its future was uncertain. The first round of demolition in 1997 takes out the chest building, morgue, and several other cottages on the property.

The order to close Greystone came in 2000 by Christie Todd Whitman. This all but assured that the facility was going to be heading into a dangerous situation.

300 acres along Central Ave. was sold to Morris county in 2001, and several Greystone buildings on that tract were demolished in the following year. Two years later, the old doctors houses along Executive Way were demolished. Just one more year after that in 2005, the large annex building behind the Kirkbride was demolished.

Demolition stopped for a few years, but between 2007 and 2008 the Curry reception building and several others in its group were torn down.

In 2008, the doors of the Kirkbride closed for good. A new hospital was built on the land behind the Kirkbride, There were now only roughly a dozen buildings left from the original hospital complex. Though the Kirkbride was shuttered, it wasn't in bad shape. The building was structurally sound, just not up to current codes. The state mothballed the building, keeping the power and heat on to make sure the building didn't fall apart. The complex was almost entirely boarded up, and the police were keeping a close eye on the building. A former nurse ran into Governor Christie in a restaurant after the hospital closed. She asked him what was going to become of the beautiful old building. He looked her right in the eye and said "It won't be destroyed".

On June 29th, 2009 Greystone's fire department closed. They were the last living vestige of the old hospital. From this point on, dozens of people held their breath to see what was going to happen to the hospital. For seven years, nothing happened. The lights remained on, the doors locked; Superstorm Sandy battered the land under the Kirkbride but the building stood strong. Then, news broke that nobody expected. The Kirkbride, and the rest of the Greystone buildings were going to be demolished in their entirety.

The news sent the group Preserve Greystone scrambling. They wanted answers. They requested pertinent documents through the proper channels regarding the building. They received page after page of redacted documents. This is when my friends and I first reached out to the group.

The state solicited offers to buy and restore the Kirkbride building, one of which included $100 million and a full renovation. Though they put out bids for renovation, the state never again contacted any of the perspective buyers. Instead, they put out for demolition bids. They chose one of the bids from a company called Northstar. Their bid of $34.5 million was substantially less than the next lowest bid. While nobody lingered on that fact, I was very curious how that was going to affect the abatement and demolition process. My worst fears were soon confirmed.

The "remediation" began quickly, and as Preserve Greystone turned to the courts to try and stop the process. The Abell building, as well as several other buildings behind the Kirkbride were demolished. While Preserve Greystone wasn't given an answer immediately, a judge did tell a representative of the demolition company that they weren't to do any irreparable damage to the structure until the case could be heard. Unbeknownst to the group, my friends and I snuck into the old hospital under the cover of darkness before dawn to investigate how the remediation was being handled. What we saw immediately made us sick.

The company had already begun to destroy the building. Door frames were not removed with care, rather the walls around the frames were smashed out carelessly with no regard for a potential future. Not only that, but all the contaminated garbage from inside the building was tossed haphazardly into the courtyards. Window frames from the wards had all been knocked out, however no poly sheeting was put up in their place. No negative pressure system was in place and no decontamination chambers were anywhere in site. With children's athletic fields less than 100 yards away, it was startling how irresponsibly these hazardous materials were being dealt with.

We went to a meeting of the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, in order to urge them to step in and stop what was being done. Several dozen people stood up and pleaded with the group, while reporters from local newspapers wrote down every detail. No matter what we said, we couldn't get a reaction out of the group. They all kept their mouths shut, even as the mayor of nearby Harding stood up and told them they should listen to us and stop it.

The evidence we presented to Preserve Greystone showing the sloppy internal demolition work made it to a judge, who after looking at the film said that the company was only doing what had to be taken care of whether the structure was going to be renovated or not. Hearing this, the demolition company brought in their heavy equipment and began hacking away at the violent wards on the female side immediately.

Alongside Preserve Greystone, we helped organize "Rally for Greystone". Desperate to get more media attention to our cause, a friend suggested a plan which, if done correctly, would definitely turn heads. We picked a night right before the rally to sneak back into the massive hospital. We walked up to the roof and waited for the sun to begin to rise. Quickly, we lowered a banner over the edge of  the building. It read 'Smash the state, not Greystone" with a small tagline below reading #InGreedWeTrust.

Though it didn't stay up long, a member of the Star Ledger was able to capture a few photo's of it. It provided the extra boost of attention we were looking for to bring people out that day. We got hundreds of concerned New Jersey residents to come out to the park in front of the hospital in order to show the local government that the people wanted the building saved. People from all over the country made it to Morris Plains that day.

However, the rally did little but raise awareness. The demolition company kept beating away at the left wing, moving at a pace way ahead of their schedule. Before long, most of the wing was gone. Preserve Greystone filed another lawsuit, but the day before the judgement was to be heard the demolition company went around the entire outside of the wings with a machine, scraping huge scuffs in the facade along the way. This action served no purpose other than to dissuade our preservation efforts. The wings, though still there physically, were officially now too damaged to hope to save.

It wasn't long before the right wing was gone too. By the time they began work on that, we dropped our persuits to nail the compnay for the envirmnemtal hazards. They properly abated one ward, so if inspectors came they could take them through the mock abated ward and satisfy them. This is what an abated ward should look like. As the rest of the pictures clearly show, this is the only one that was done correctly.

For a few months, the admin building remained standing alone. While some thought it may be because they wanted to save it, they just wanted to be able to tear out as many pieces as they could sell before they eventually went to work on admin too. On July 9th, 2015, Preserve Greystone officially gave up the fight to save the building. By the end of October, the entire Kirkbride building was gone.

We won't really know the true ramifications of this demolition for a few years. Asbestos, which covered the park throughout the entire demolition process, takes years to show its true effects. Pretty soon we will need building space for the homeless, drug users or maybe even the mentally ill again, We will never have Greystone again. Through the demolition of Greystone, a new preservation advocacy group specifically devoted to Kirkbrides called Preservationworks was born. We are working to make sure this sort of thing never happens again. If we can help it.



  2. A fascinating read! Well done... bittersweet. I love historical buildings, so strong and built to last forever, like ancient Greece. That building could have lasted for centuries and could have been renovated to suit so many different transient reasons. A hotel?