Harlem Valley State Hospital / NY

The Last Bowl

Harlem Valley State Hospital opened on April 24th, 1924 „for the care and treatment of the insane“ as part of an act to discontinue the farm and industrial prison at Wingdale. Buildings A, B and C had already been constructed and money was soon requested to buy adjoining farmland and buildings to build a root cellar, dairy barn, piggery and poultry house for 3000 chickens. With 24 patients admitted on August 11 from New York City and Long Island, the hospital was ready to become part of the history of Harlem Valley.

Between 1925 and 1929, the certified capacity of the new hospital rose from 250 to 1294. During that time, the Board of Managers, which, in later years, became the Board of Visitors, approved changing the course of the adjacent State Route so that it would skirt most of the grounds instead of running directly through. By 1928 Buildings F and H were competed and Kitchen G was readied. In addition, tennis courts were built, physical culture classes were started and a baseball team for employees was organized. Then, by 1929 new staff quarters were completed and a switchboard was installed that served for 60 years. In the fall of the year, the School of Nursing, constructed in 1926, opened on September 23 with 14 enrolled.

By 1934 the hospital was considered complete except for the Assembly Hall, which was dedicated by New York State Governor Alfred E. Smith three years later in 1937. The Wingdale campus evolved into a town within itself with a farm, laundry, bakery, refrigeration plants and storerooms. The new baseball field and grandstand with a grassy expanse beyond added to the planned village look. Also in 1934 child guidance clinics were opened in Mt. Kisco and Mt. Vernon. Clinic increased in number until World War II, when they were discontinued due to staffing problems and travel restrictions.

An early high point in Harlem Valley history occurred in 1936 when Dr. Manfred Sakal of Vienna was invited to demonstrate his method of insulin shock treatment at a special institute of State hospital physicians. The course of instruction lasted six weeks after which physicians returned to their various hospitals to set up treatment units. Then, other physicians from intuitions throughout the United States and Canada came to Harlem Valley for several months to receive instruction. For a period of time, insulin shock therapy became standard treatment in State hospitals.

As World War II was drawing near in 1941, electric shock therapy was introduced at the hospital. When the United States entered the war, employees were drawn away to take part in the effort, either as part of the armed forces or to work in war industries. Naturally, Harlem Valley was proud of those who served. Later their names were displayed on a bronze plaque in the Administration Building. And, even with the war going on and staffing short, the census reached a high of 5,415 in 1943. It retreated to 4474 during 1945, though.

In post World War II 1947, the first personnel department for recruiting purposes was established. The nursing school, which operated throughout the war, had no students in 1948 as census again moved upward. In 1950, it reached 5078. During that same year ten lobotomies were performed at the hospital. In 1952, the Carmel Clinic began offering services to all members of the community, regardless of age.

By 1955 a patient intramural softball league had been organized and 100 patients a month attended the Dover Plains Theater free of charge as part of the program for recreation. That year was notable for something of more far reaching significance. It was the first year that psychotropic medications were used at Harlem Valley. These would provide later to dramatically alleviate symptoms and help patients toward recovery and normalization of their lives. The year 1956 saw a record census of 5,818, patients, though.

Towards the end of the decade, in 1958, an open door policy was instituted. Ambulatory patients who had honor cards and who lived on unlocked wards could go out on the grounds during daylight hours. This was a new practice, but something older was abandoned. The end of an era came with the cessation of farm activities at Harlem Valley in March 1960. The hospital was no longer a self-sufficient community in eastern Dutchess County. Three years later the framework of new construction began to loom against the eastern hillside – a sign of further expansion – which had been recommended years earlier. The medical/surgical building – Sullivan Tower or, more commonly, Building 85 – was being erected. It was completed in the fall of 1966 and contained wards for infirm patients, an operating room, laboratory, diagnostic equipment, clinics, medical library and mortuary. The building was technologically state-if-the-art. Modernization in other campus locations also took place. In 1969 renovation of open porches into enclosed sun porches was completed.

Layoffs occurred in 1971 along with the closing of Building A, B, and C. The following year, the Wingdale unit of Westchester Developmental Center reopened these buildings for their own use, with administrative responsibility resting with Harlem Valley. In 1972, a training team helped a group of hand-picked staff to create what became known as the Metro Unit. This unit featured the interdisciplinary treatment team and introduced other innovations. Patients became „residents“ and were treated with group therapy. Another significant change took place a year later. On April 4, 1973, unitization of the entire hospital began. This process rearranged patients into wards for those from the same geographical location of Westchester and Putnam counties. This has not been done before. An entirely new mix of patients on wards resulted.

When Harlem Valley celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1974, patient census at the end of April was 1897, reflecting the ongoing efforts towards deinstitutionalization, – or the discharging of patients into the community and linking them up with community services. In this year also, the hospital’s official name became Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center.

On the occasion of its 69th anniversary in 1984, acknowledgement was given to Harlem Valley as a leader with the State mental health system. Dr. Steven E. Katz, OMH Commissioner at the time, remarked in a congratulatory letter, „The last six decades have seen profound change in the role of Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center. Once a rural asylum for the mentally ill, it is now a leader in the provision of community based services aimed at preventing unnecessary hospitalization of the mentally ill.“ Governor Mario Cuomo expressed similar thoughts in his letter to HVPC and added, „Its staff have much for which to be proud.“

The mid-1980’s saw Harlem Valley surviving if not necessarily thriving. Assisting the New York City metropolitan region by accepting patients during a critical time was part of its mandate. During this time, refurbishing of the ward environment in more comfortable, personalized terms became art of facility goals. The first wards showcasing this new „Therapeutic Environment“ resulting in a demonstrable uplift in morale for both residents and staff alike. New lighting, more comfortable furnishings, and accessories, and the modification of spaces, which lowered sound levels, all contributed. Also in this time of renewal family members of patients and significant others interested in the well-being of patients wanted to become more involved with patient care and treatment. They did so by linking in discussion periodically with Harlem Valley administrators and staff to effect changes. Patient advocacy and an inpatient Patient Council came into being. Parallel to this, the movement of consumers of mental health services was also beginning to gain prominence and to be more widely listened to. As testimony to its evolvement, Harlem Valley added the Consumer Advocate Award to its then recently established Distinguished Scholar Award presented annually.

Even before the beginning of the economic slowdown in the time bridging the decades of the eighties and nineties and the resultant crunch affecting the State budget, psychiatric centers were being regarded more and more as costly remainders and reminders from times past. Mental health services in the community were to assume greater importance, greater responsiveness, and greater responsibility, the Office of Mental Health reaffirmed. The introduction of Psychiatric Rehabilitation was to assist in a patient’s making choices which could lead, it was hoped, to a more independent, satisfying and productive life eventually in a community environment of his/her choice.

In the end, Hudson River Psychiatric Center was announcing its „close of business“ January 31, 1994. Not fully 70 years had passed from that first admission to the last light out and lowering of the flag.


I have visited this vast and impressive site at two occasions, led by a fellow exploring friend. Entry is not easy which fortunately keeps many vandals at bay. Through the obligatory tunnel system many of the buildings are accessible, leading also to the recreational areas such as bowling alley, theater, gymnasium etc.. The wards are mostly completely empty and are slowly taken over by moss and mold.
Though we did not run into ghosts, we were forced into cover by some patroling cops. We escaped undetected!

Here is the link to the Slideshow

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About Roman

Hobby photographer since 2005, Canon user. Mainly interested in Urban Exploring and Travel photography. Some first experiments with videos. On the professional side: PhD in Chemistry, working in the generic pharmaceutical industry. Living and working in Germany


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