The Lovely Bones: Renovating the Kirkbride Asylums Means Finding New Ways to Live With Old Ghosts


For the criminally insane, there were worse places to do time than the Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. Its stately arches, vaulted ceilings, and yawning, sun-drinking windows were actually designed to provide a form of architectural therapy. That didn’t stop patients from trying to escape, of course: The facility’s history is littered with mysteriously vanishing employees, family members butchered at the hands of escapees, and one or two fugitives who jumped off bridges or stood on railroad tracks, preferring death over surrender. Indeed, over the course of 140 years, roughly as many patients broke out as died and were buried in numbered graves in cemeteries nearby.

But now people are trying to move in. Hudson River may soon host event spaces, quaint shops, and upmarket housing developments to encircle the old asylum, which closed in 2003.

The hospital is one of dozens based on designs by nineteenth-century psychiatrist and amateur architect Thomas Story Kirkbride. Nowadays it and most other Kirkbride asylums are feral dumps, and across the country, similar redevelopment projects are under way to refurbish them. The average real estate speculator might expose the brick, add a farmers’ market, and call it a day — more yuppified sameness. Architects and preservationists hope, however, to resist the riptide of Brooklyn-style gentrification; they believe that with a mix of careful development and business incentives, the beautiful architecture can be preserved, the newcomers kept in style, and the old ghosts dignified.

The Kirkbride asylums once held grand ambitions for psychiatric medicine. Kirkbride’s elegant Victorian style took root in the 1850s, as he developed his new model for hospitals grounded in progressive and Quaker ideals. His buildings ushered in a new era of mental health treatment, which had, until then, consisted mostly of imprisoning and abusing the mentally ill. For his patients, Kirkbride prescribed natural and architectural beauty combined with the powers of fresh air, sunlight, and exercise. In his 1854 treatise, On the Construction of Hospitals for the Insane, he envisioned massive, tiered complexes featuring high ceilings and large windows, with “a cheerful and comfortable appearance, every thing repulsive and prison-like [to] be carefully avoided.”

Over the next century and a half, many of the Kirkbride asylums became overcrowded dens of mistreatment and neglect, too expensive to maintain or rendered unnecessary by the advent of psychotropic drugs and community care. Many were closed by state governments and ignored for years; their corridors may still be filled with sunlight, their entrances guarded by proud columns or decked with fanciful cupolas, but their marble floors are now spidered with cracks, the walls full of mold. Others have disappeared entirely. Of the at least eighty Kirkbride hospitals built by the turn of the twentieth century, fewer than half remain, just five in New York State.

“There was a Kirkbride in Brooklyn, destroyed in 2012,” says Robert Kirkbride, dean of the School of Constructed Environments — and distant descendant of the Victorian doctor. “You can’t even find it on Google Maps anymore.” This Kirkbride, who is 48, seems to have picked up where his forebear left off (Thomas Story died in 1883): He’s an architectural designer and scholar who has devoted his career to studying how architecture — from Italian Renaissance memory chambers to Victorian cabinets of curiosity — can affect the mind. On March 30, he delivered a lecture on the legacy of these derelict asylums at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, a space near the Gowanus Canal that he co-designed in 2014.

Kirkbride is working to prevent the kind of irretrievable mistake represented by the demolition of places like Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey. A 673,700-square-foot Victorian compound designed by Samuel Sloan, Greystone once held the claim of the largest continuous foundation of any building in the U.S., surpassed only by the Pentagon in 1940. Despite public opposition and bids from multiple developers, the building was razed — at a cost of more than $34 million to the citizens of New Jersey. The National Trust for Historic Preservation included Greystone in its 2015 annual roundup of worst architectural losses in the country. A small sign will supposedly mark the site where the building once stood.

To prevent that kind of catastrophe from happening again, Kirkbride helped found PreservationWorks, a nonprofit that brings together communities hoping to preserve Kirkbrides across the country. The group points to the successes of the Oregon State Hospital, an asylum turned mental health museum, and others, like Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, that are being converted into fine-art galleries and performance spaces. The Traverse City State Hospital, in northern Michigan, is now the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a residential and commercial development complete with its own botanical garden.

Hardly a sentimentalist, the current Kirkbride disapproves of what he calls “hysterical historic preservation,” which he believes undermines the efforts of groups like PreservationWorks. Instead, he advocates for “adaptive reuse,” a process with which many New Yorkers are familiar (think the High Line, or the Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg). Unlike the gut remodels of industrial spaces metastasizing across New York, adaptive reuse works with a building, making its peculiarities functional, self-referential, or even self-aware.

In a Kirkbride’s case, self-awareness is crucial: Communities will need to reckon with the taint of the buildings’ unique past, finding a way to honor, or at least acknowledge, their former residents. If they are able to memorialize rather than suppress those ghosts, Kirkbride believes, the buildings can be reclaimed.

“The stigmas attached to the buildings are separate from the buildings themselves,” he says. “Our inability to find new uses for them demonstrates a lack of imagination, and a total lack of respect.”