Saturday, April 10, 2010

At the Asylum

In late March and early April I was part of a team trying a case in federal court in Central Islip, a town in the middle of Long Island, New York. While there I noticed some extraordinary abandoned buildings and learned about the Central Islip Psychiatric Hospital, one of three large asylums on Long Island where patient-inmates from New York City were held from the 1890s through the 1990s. The asylum at Central Islip sprawled over 1,000 acres and, at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, housed about 10,000 inmates. Much of it has been razed and converted to other uses, including condominiums, a shopping mall, a commercial office park, baseball fields, and the courthouse where my trial was taking place. But a number of the asylum buildings remain. Converted to classrooms and dormitories, some form the core of the New York Institute of Technology's Central Islip campus. Others, often mixed among the NYIT buildings, are abandoned.

The asylum buildings were beautifully constructed and have decayed with dignity. Photographically, decaying buildings are all about detail, and for me, that means an excuse to shoot medium format film.

My trial lasted almost four weeks, and was close enough to my home that I could return home for a night or two on weekends. After the first week when I noticed and researched the facility, I brought a Mamiya RB67 with 90mm and 50mm Sekor lenses. For the third week, I brought two vintage TLRs, a 1937 Zeiss-Ikon Ikoflex and a 1955 Yashicaflex. For the fourth week, I brought back the two TLRs plus an Olympus 35RC.

The abandoned structure most obvious from the road passing through the facility is the former administrative headquarters.

A striking thing about the abandoned asylum buildings is the way they have been allowed to decay without desecration. There is no graffiti and almost no litter. The grounds are heavily patrolled by local and NYIT police. They are nice to you if you are walking a dog, taking pictures or just looking around, but evidently quick to run off any groups of kids or other loiterers who might be up to no good.

Across the road are abandoned housing and other facilities for the asylum staff.

Behind these buildings used to be a group of structures known as the String of Pearls, because they were of especially handsome design and linked by a series of covered passageways. Unfortunately all traces of that complex have vanished.

NYIT has occupied and repurposed a number of the old asylum buildings. Its crown jewel is Building 66, formerly the medical-surgical building, now an administrative center for the campus.

Connected to 66 is the former kitchen and dining hall for the hospital, which became the NYIT culinary school, complete with epicurean restaurant. There was not much activity around this building and I was unable to determine whether either the culinary program or the restaurant are still operating. Too bad; I would have liked to eat there.

Other buildings have been repurposed in ways sensibly related to their original functions, such as nurses' residences now used as student dormitories. One of the largest buildings lies abandoned at the heart of the campus.

Known as the Admissions building, this is where patients were first taken on arrival to the asylum after disembarking from the train on the facility's special rail spur from the Long Island Railroad. They were held in wards in this building for examination until their ultimate home within the asylum was decided.

Those decorative window frames behind the plate glass, as on all of the asylum buildings where patients were held, are made of cast iron.

Many of the facility's buildings were linked by underground or half-underground tunnels. I stood on the roof of one of the half-underground ones to take this picture; it ran to a building that no longer exists.

The most remarkable and sobering of the surviving buildings is the Sunburst Building. So called because, in plan view, it consists of long wings that radiate from a central courtyard like the spokes of a half-wheel.

The Sunburst building was for psychiatric patients who also had tuberculosis, and who therefore had to be isolated from the other inmates. In the early part of the 20th century, sunlight and fresh air were thought to be therapeutic for TB. So the wings of Sunburst were set up as rows of patient rooms with open porches, to encourage the occupants to sit in the fresh air, but enclosed by cages so they couldn't escape. Some of the cages are still in place.

I did not enter any buildings at the facility, but I did poke my digital camera through the cages for a few shots of the former patient quarters inside.

Some of the porches have had glass installed between the cage wires.

Walking around Sunburst at dawn was profoundly disturbing. If you are the type who believes, or just likes to fancy, that land and buildings retain the spiritual traces of what has gone on there, this land and the buildings on it are drenched in misery, misunderstanding, compassion, and cruelty.

In a few wings the cages have been torn out altogether,

and so it is possible to step up on the porches and contemplate things from a patient's perspective.

Sunburst is part of NYIT's piece of the asylum grounds, and parts of it were renovated and occupied by the college in the 1980s. The college has scaled back its operations at this campus, however, and those parts of the building now have been abandoned a second time.

Next to Sunburst is the jarring incongruity of this early experiment in prefabricated housing, the "Aluminaire." Shown at exhibitions in 1931 and 1932 in New York and subsequently abandoned, the house was rescued and relocated to the Central Islip campus in the 1980s by NYIT's architecture program. That program, however, has since left the campus, and the house essentially is now abandoned again.

Another cluster of asylum buildings known as the James Group is characterized by three-arch entranceways. Some are still in use -- one is even a day care center -- but at least one is abandoned.

Six or seven feral-looking cats eyed me with loathing from the Japanese garden behind this deserted building. There were more cats inside.

The pace of demolition of the old buildings accelerated in the 2000s, and many of the surviving buildings likely will not be around much longer.

In the center of the facility was an open recreational area, including a golf course that is still in use as such by the town. This derelict grandstand was built behind home plate of a long-gone baseball diamond. I have read that the upper structure was built from rails salvaged from one of the railroad spurs that used to cross the asylum grounds.

The most obscure and inaccessible part of the asylum was the old cemetery. Mental illness was not often cured in the early and mid twentieth century, and many patients never left the facility. The grounds where they are buried, squeezed between the federal courthouse and a law school in a corner of the former asylum property, bears many no-trespassing signs but no external indication of what it is, and is surrounded by a fence topped by barbed wire along which especially thorny bushes have been encouraged to grow. The authorities really don't want you to know this place exists; it took some research to figure out where it was, and it was hazardous just getting to the fence to poke my Olympus through it. No grave markers are really visible. From what I have read, most were small to begin with, bore no information except a number, and are mostly overgrown. Once I knew what to look for, I found that the pattern of the graves was vaguely discernible from the aerial perspective of the upper floors of the adjacent courthouse.

A number of galleries of photos of the Central Islip facility, including the interiors of many of the buildings and the cemetery, have been put up by adventurous photographers who have learned to disregard no-trespassing signs. Many of their images are fascinating, but that type of thing isn't my style. What I did experience of the facility was enough to open my eyes to a new aspect of Long Island history that is fast disappearing, and to make me reflect in both thought and photographs on some of the secrets of the places where we work and live.


  1. Fascinating. Thank you for this great set of photos and your commentary.

  2. Lived across from the hospital from 1954 to 1968. then moved up north of hospital by post office. Us kids used to clime fence and go through to go to moved in town to save long walk around. Is it possible to get copy of pictures. email