Kings Park State Hospital

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Kings Park State Hospital
Kings Park State Hospital
Established 1885
Opened June 18, 1888
Closed 1996
Current Status Closed
Building Style Metropolitan Cottage Plan
Location Kings Park, New York
Peak Patient Population 9000 est. in 1954
Alternate Names
  • Kings Park Psychiatric Center
  • Kings County Asylum

Early History[edit]

KPPC Bldg93 01.jpg
Prior to the establishment of this institution in 1885 all of the insane of Kings County were treated in the local institution situated in the suburbs of Brooklyn and known as the Kings County Lunatic Asylum. The rapid growth of the general population of the county, due largely to an unprecedented immigration, produced a disproportionate increase in the number of insane in the county and added enormously to the serious overcrowding in the county asylum.

Although successive superintendents pleaded with the county authorities for additional buildings, no provision for relief was made.

Finally, when conditions became intolerable, after patients had been crowded into the basements of the large asylum building and into an old frame building quite unfit for the purpose, public sentiment compelled action by the county authorities, and in 1885 about 850 acres of land were purchased at St. Johnland, 43 miles to the east, on Long Island, and a branch asylum was established.

Temporary frame buildings were erected on the new site for the immediate reception of patients, and in the fall of 1885 55 patients, 32 men and 23 women, were transferred to the St. Johnland Farm.

The new institution was established on the cottage plan. Sixteen frame buildings were to be erected to accommodate about 450 patients, and a laundry, heating plant, barns, etc., were also to be built. But progress in the erection of these buildings was very slow. In the spring of 1887 150 additional patients were received, making a total of 200, all being crowded into the three original temporary buildings.

In 1887 Dr. D. A. Harrison, assistant physician in charge of the St. Johnland Branch Asylum, was made medical superintendent, the general superintendent in charge of all the charitable institutions of the county, including the two asylums for the insane, then being Dr. John A. Arnold.

The first two permanent cottages were opened on June 18, 1888, and 14 more in 1889. Although these were promptly filled with patients far beyond their estimated capacity, the overcrowding in the Flatbush Asylum, instead of being relieved by these transfers, was actually worse than ever, so that it became necessary for the county to provide for the erection of more buildings.

A change at this time in the personnel of the Commissioners of Charities and Corrections of Kings County, who controlled building operations, brought about a very serious condition. Medical officers were soon warned against a too plain presentation of the existing situation or of the most obvious necessities required for the patients under their care, and failure to observe this warning resulted in demotion or dismissal. Thus in 1889 Dr. Harrison's salary was reduced by $600, the difference being added to the salary of the recently appointed counsel of the commissioners. Dr. Harrison protested and then resigned, being succeeded by Dr. John L. Macumber.

At Flatbush Dr. Arnold, the general medical superintendent, resigned in 1892, being followed by Dr. Walter S. Fleming, who in turn was succeeded in 1893 by Dr. William E. Sylvester.

During the four succeeding years a large amount of construction was carried on at Kings Park. Four large brick buildings to accommodate 600 patients were built (buildings A, B, C and D); two large water reservoirs were constructed, also barns, an engine and dynamo room, a steam plant, conduits, sewers, etc. A subsequent investigation showed an extraordinary waste of public funds in this construction. Eighty thousand dollars is said to have been paid for a cow barn for which a fair price would have been $10,000 or $12,000. Eleven million bricks were used to fill an excavation prepared for the erection of buildings (C and D) and charged as an extra. Hundreds of barrels of cement were ordered to reduce the grades of a road near the canal, though it was said that the barge carrying this material sprung a leak and after the cement became wet it was simply piled on the bank. The cement in round barrel form can be seen there to this day. Hundreds of wagon loads of dirt were removed from the excavation for the water reservoirs and carted to a distance of nearly a mile into the woods, and then brought back again to build an embankment around the upper reservoir.

Meantime Dr. Macumber, who had protested against some of the more flagrant developments, was forced to resign on January 1, 1893, the vacancy being filled by the promotion of Dr. Oliver M. Dewing.

Conditions became so scandalous that an investigation was undertaken by a committee of the Assembly into the affairs of the Department of Charities and Correction, and Hugo Hirsch, of Brooklyn, was made special counsel.

The committee quickly found gross violation of law on the part of the commissioners. Officers and subordinates of acknowledged capacity and honesty had been superseded by men of no experience in the work to be performed, or, if not deficient in capacity, of doubtful integrity. Additional and useless employees were appointed with duties assigned to them that had previously been properly performed by other employees of the board. To quote from the report:

The conspirators proceeded to violation of the law and acts of fraud. We found that the department was being used not only for the purpose of making places for the hangers-on of the corrupt politicians who controlled the department, but that these hangers-on did no work and received pay purely as sinecurists. We found men who were chronically sick, and thousands upon thousands of dollars were paid to men who were marked absent on the time books and who received their pay for the full month.

In spite of the millions of dollars which the county thus spent upon the insane, the standard of care under the county regime was very low. The buildings were unsuitable and unhygienic, facilities inadequate, clothing insufficient and of poor quality, food often unfit for human consumption, the physicians were underpaid and their recommendations unheeded. Thus, Dr. Carlos F. MacDonald, State Commissioner in Lunacy, who had served as medical superintendent at Flatbush, testified before the Assembly investigating committee as follows:

I may say generally that the standard of care and treatment of the insane in Kings County was, and had been for years previous, very much below that of any other locality in the state.

It is gratifying to be able to record that in the midst of this atmosphere of shameless corruption the medical officers connected with the work of caring for the insane, without a single exception, had thrown expediency to the winds and at the risk of having their entire careers blighted, boldly opposed dishonesty and inefficient methods until they were, one after another, removed from their posts. But the flagrant dishonesty of the county officials brought about as a direct result the legislation by which, in 1895, in the face of the most determined opposition, the asylums at Flatbush and Kings Park were transferred to the care of the state.

At the time of this transfer the medical superintendent at Kings Park was Dr. Oliver M. Dewing, serving under General Superintendent Dr. William E. Sylvester.

Upon assuming financial supervision of the hospital the State Commission in Lunacy authorized the erection of a large group of buildings at Kings Park to accommodate 1000 patients, with a view to the early discontinuance of the establishment at Flatbush. These buildings, now known as Group 1, were opened in January, 1889. By the time the buildings were completed new problems confronted the commission. The crowding of the buildings of the Manhattan State Hospital had become such that the commission was compelled to retain Flatbush Asylum, and to use the new group of buildings for the relief of overcrowding on Ward's Island and in part to care for the patients of the buildings abandoned on Hart's Island and Blackwell's Island. Accordingly, 500 patients were received by transfer at Kings Park.

Thus the hospital at Kings Park soon became more important tban the institution at Flatbush, of which it originally was a branch. The headquarters of the general medical superintendent were soon transferred to Kings Park, and finally, on May 1, 1900, it became by law a separate state hospital, independent of the institution at Flatbush, and the position of general medical superintendent was abolished.

On June 1, 1904, the State Commission in Lunacy transferred Dr. William Austin Macy, then superintendent of the Willard State Hospital, to the Kings Park State Hospital, Dr. Dewing going to the Long Island State Hospital at Flatbush.

It is generally to the credit of the medical men who struggled under the adverse conditions above described that sustained systematic individual and collective studies were made as to the causes of insanity and its various forms, in order to keep the hospital abreast with others of the state. Determined efforts were made 'o abolish all mechanical restraint, and, as heretofore indicated, a constant struggle was made for proper food, sanitation, proper clothing, heating, lighting and ventilation, but obviously a systematic organization of the medical work could not be perfected.

As soon as the hospital entered the state system, however, a reorganization of the medical service and a readjustment of salaries were at once made. Blank forms were introduced for use in making physical and mental examinations, and reports made showing the progress of each case and a convenient and uniform loosesheet system of files for medical records adopted. Finally, it became apparent that the personnel of the state hospital medical staffs was made up either of young men without special psychiatrical training or of older men who had merely gone through the general movement throughout the state by which the construction, organization and administrative adjustment of the institution for the insane was accomplished. To remedy this condition a State Pathological Institute was established.

The contrast between conditions under county care and those under state care is well brought out by the history of this institution, and constitutes perhaps a lesson never to be forgotten.

The hospital continued to be known as the Long Island State Hospital at Kings Park until 1905, when the name was changed by legislative enactment to Kings Park State Hospital.

An employees' home, with a capacity for 300, was completed and opened in the early part of 1906. A new laundry was completed in 1910, the old one having been destroyed by fire. A new boiler house was completed in 1910.

The Legislature has provided funds to extend this hospital materially. During 1912 a large group of brick buildings with accommodations for 700 patients was finished and three large frame pavilions for 250 patients of the tubercular class were occupied in 1913, bringing the capacity of the institution up to 4000 beds.

The Kings Park State Hospital is much better off in equipment and facilities for doing its medical work than it was in the years gone by. Its laboratory, while not perfectly equipped, has everything necessary for average work of any kind.

By the time of this report (1916) the value of the real estate and personal property of this hospital is, in round numbers, $4,500,000. The cottage system upon which it was originally planned has not been maintained, being superseded in late years by congregate groups of buildings. Even the frame pavilions for the tubercular class just completed are connected and thus made easy of administration. The large group of brick buildings for the chronic class, completed in 1912, has been found in practice the most economical as well as the most suitable for this type of patients.

The growth of the hospital from its beginning in 1885 as a branch of the county asylum, with temporary accommodations for 65 patients in crudely constructed structures, to its attainment in 1914 of an equipment of 76 buildings and a population of 4266 patients, with all that these figures imply, has been but a reflection of the expansion and progress of the district from which it draws its patients, the counties of Kings, Nassau and Suffolk, and its future development will be likewise as rapid and progressive as nay be anticipated for such district. The continued increase of the demands that will be made upon it for service should take no one by surprise.[1]

20th Century[edit]

As patient populations grew throughout the early part of the 20th century, the hospital itself continued to grow, and by the late 1930s the state began to build upward instead of outward. During this time period, the famous 13-story Building 93 was built. Designed by state architect William E. Haugaard and funded with Works Progress Administration money, the building, often dubbed "the most famous asylum building on Long Island," was completed in 1939 and would be used as an infirmary for the facility's geriatric patients, as well as for patients with chronic physical ailments.

Post-World? War II, Kings Park and the other Long Island asylums would see their patient populations soar. In 1954, the patient census at Kings Park topped 9,300, but would begin a steady decline afterwards. By the time Kings Park reached its peak patient population, the old "rest and relaxation" philosophy surrounding farming gave way to pre-frontal lobotomies and electro-shock therapy, but those methods would quickly become ancient in 1955, following the introduction of Thorazine, the first widely used drug in the treatment of mental illness. As medication made it possible for patients to live normal lives outside of a mental institution, the need for large facilities like Kings Park diminished, and the patient population began to drop. By the early 1990s the Kings Park Psychiatric Center, as it had come to be known by that point, was operating as a ghost of its former self, with many buildings being shut down or reduced in usage (including the massive Building 93, by the early 1990s, only the first few floors of the building were in use).

In the early 1990s, with patient populations at increasingly low levels, the New York State Office of Mental Health (formerly the Department of Mental Hygiene) began to plan for the closure of Kings Park as well as another Long Island asylum, the Central Islip Psychiatric Center. The plans called for Kings Park and Central Islip to close, and have any remaining patients from both facilities transferred to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, which was at one time the world's largest hospital, or be discharged. In the fall of 1996, the plans were implemented, and the few remaining patients from Kings Park and Central Islip were transferred to Pilgrim, ending Kings Park's 111-year run.

Today, the sprawling area that once housed the Kings Park Psychiatric Center stands as a testament to a forgotten era. In the spring of 2000, the waterfront portion of the former campus was reopened as the Nissequogue River State Park, preventing it from development, while the rest lies mostly abandoned (the rail spur, abandoned in the late 1980s, was converted into part of a hike-bike trail in 2003). Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, which took in the remaining patients from Kings Park, runs three group homes on the non-parkland portion of the campus while everything else is abandoned. Since 1996, several proposals regarding the property have come and gone, and today, a developer is looking into purchasing the non-parkland portions of the grounds from New York State. This development proposal has proven to be highly controversial. The former campus contains numerous obstacles to development, the biggest obstacles are several buildings that were demolished into their basements and buried while the hospital was still open. All of these buildings, which contained asbestos, were never properly abated. Other obstacles include buried ash from the hospital's power generation facilities, asbestos-lined steam tunnels, and asbestos-laden buildings. These obstacles have created a fear in the surrounding community that the developer will have no choice but to build high-density housing to cover the environmental clean-up costs in order to make a profit. In January 2006, New York State aborted the sale of the property, and the future of the site continues to remain uncertain at the present time, with a suit filed by the developer pending in the courts. With the sale canceled, security has been stepped up at the facility once again as the property has been an attraction for trespassers. Also, pets have now been banned from the park year round.

It was also announced that NY State officials had agreed on a new plan for the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center property that they were calling the most significant step in years toward getting the long-stalled redevelopment process under way.

Outgoing parks commissioner Bernadette Castro has persuaded other state officials to transfer most of the hospital property to her agency. The plan calls for 368 acres (1.49 km2) to be added to Nissequogue River State Park, which was created in 1999 from 153 acres (0.62 km2) of adjacent hospital property. Then the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will request proposals for a private-public partnership for redeveloping part of the site where vacant buildings stand.

The 1995 movie Eyes Beyond Seeing, by director Daniel Robert Cohn, was filmed in KPPC's Building 136/137 (old medical/surgical unit) shortly after the building was closed down. The film also contains exterior shots of the famous Building 93 (The 13 story tall Geriatric/Ambulatory building), in an attempt to convince viewers that the interior shots were done inside 93. The film stars Keith Hamilton Cobb as a mental patient claiming to be Jesus Christ, and also features a cameo by Henny Youngman, in his final movie appearance before his death, as a mental patient claiming to be Henny Youngman. Henny Youngman actually performed for the patients of KPPC back when it was still open, so it was a nice homage from him to the patients to portray one himself.[2]

Images of Kings Park State Hospital[edit]

Main Image Gallery: Kings Park State Hospital


  • The farm colonies: Caring for New York City's mentally ill in Long Island's state hospitals, by Leo Polaski


  • A video documentary done on the hospital and it's closing by the Kings Park Historical Society.

  • A video clip about the making of Eyes Beyond Seeing at KPPC.

  • The following nine minute clip produced by S. Weber and entitled "Searching for the Lost Buildings of the Kings Park State Hospital" talks about the buildings that were razed on the Kings Park State Hospital campus during its operating years.

  • The following twenty-seven minute 1980's slide show of Kings Park State Hospital was compiled by S. Weber and the Kings Park Heritage Museum with music from Andrew Fortier.

In The News[edit]