Willard State Hospital

From Asylum Projects
Jump to: navigation, search
Willard State Hospital
Willard State Hospital
Established April 8, 1865
Construction Began July 1866
Opened October 1869
Closed 1995
Demolished 1980 (Main Building)
Current Status Closed
Building Style Kirkbride Plan
Architect(s) William H. Willcox
Location Willard, NY
Architecture Style Second Empire
Peak Patient Population 4,440 in 1953
Alternate Names
  • Willard Asylum for the Chronic Pauper Insane
  • Willard State Asylum


In 1853, the site was acquired for the state's first agricultural college. The college - on 440 acres of farmland in the town of Ovid, "the geographical centre and Eden of the Empire State" - opened in December 1860, but it didn't last long. Within months, its president and most of the teachers and students marched off to fight in the Civil War, and the college never reopened. It was superseded by the new state university, established in Ithaca on land donated by state Senator Ezra Cornell.

Soon afterward, the site was earmarked for the Willard Asylum for the Insane, which would represent a second and major step toward transferring responsibility for the care of the mentally ill to the state. From colonial times, the care of insane persons had been a local function. Each county operated a poorhouse, or almshouse, wherein was indiscriminately lodged a hodgepodge of dependant persons: the mad, the feebleminded, the aged and crippled, drunks, epileptics and beggars. The almshouses provided custody and shelter, but "treatment" was not in their vocabulary.

The first step toward state assumption of responsibility was the opening of the Utica Lunatic Asylum in 1843. Utica was established as a treatment facility. It was reserved for new, acute eases and was required by law to return to county custody any patient who was not discharged as recovered within two years. Still condemned to the almshouse were the incurables, who, contrary to the unreal expectations of early asylum enthusiasts, were the norm among the pauper lunatic class. Dorothea Dix, among others including the underfunded county superintendents of the poor, drew the Legislature's attention to the unspeakable plight of the chronically ill.

Finally, in 1864, the Legislature appointed Dr. Sylvester D. Willard to investigate conditions in almshouses, jails and other places where the insane were kept. His report of neglect, abuse and suffering led to the passage - six days before Lincoln's assassination - of a bill calling for a second state asylum, specifically designated for the care of the chronic insane. The asylum, located on the site of the abandoned Ovid Agricultural College, was named in memory of Dr. Willard, who died of typhoid fever just days before passage of the bill he authored.

In 1866, construction began on a large asylum building (razed in the early 1980's). Like the Eastern and Great Meadow prisons, the asylum was built on the approved institutional design of the day: a three-story center structure for administration with long wings radiating from either side for patient housing, males in one wing and females in the other.

On Oct. 13,1869, a steamboat docked at Ovid Landing and several men led a deformed, demented woman down the gangplank; Mary Rote, the asylum's first patient, had been chained for 10 years without a bed and without clothing in a cell in the Columbia County almshouse.

Three more patients, males, arrived at the dock that day, all in irons, one "in what looked like a chicken crate, 3 1/2 feet square. Many of the early patients had been considered difficult and were "quieted" by regular flogging, dousing and "pulleying" (hanging by the thumbs) in the almshouses. Within days of their arrival at the new asylum, however, they were bathed, dressed, fed and, usually, resting quietly on the wards.

Within a few months, admissions outstripped the building's 250-bed capacity, and the former college building, high on the hill overlooking the lake, was renovated as housing for higher-functioning patients. The Grandview, the oldest structure on the grounds, is still in use today. The Finger Lakes Federal Credit Union has offices in the Grandview, and DOCS uses it as a training building.

By the end of the first year, with the census approaching 700, Willard began to construct "detached buildings" away from the main building. The detached buildings housed working patients and their attendants. Work on the Sunnycroft, a salmon colored, two-story structure, began in 1872. It was rehabilitated in 1962 at a cost of $900,000 and is today enclosed within the DTC fence. Sunnycroft has eight 50-bed dormitories as well as offices and activity rooms.

Another detached structure from the 1870's, Edgemere, located outside the security fence, is now used by the DTC for training and staff functions of the type typically held in Quality of Work Life buildings.

Willard was growing rapidly. By 1890, when the name was changed to Willard State Hospital and its function enlarged to include acute as well as chronic patients, the census hit 2,000. Willard grew outward, gathering neighboring properties for farmland, and of course kept building, eventually topping 70 buildings large and small.

Among later structures were the Birches (1934) and Hatch Building (1951); both, along with Sunnycroft, are inside the DTC security fence. The Birches (two magnificent birch trees frame the entryway) is used for parolee housing, classrooms, vocational shops and offices. Hatch is used for housing and is also the DTC administration building.[1]

After the closure of the Willard Psychiatric Center, some of the grounds were largely abandoned, with several buildings deteriorating. Part of the grounds became the Willard Drug Treatment Campus. Some of its buildings are used as training facilities and dormitories by the Department of Correctional Facilities, which maintains the grounds.

Images of Willard State Hospital[edit]

Main Image Gallery: Willard State Hospital


The following short video, created by the New York Times and Kassie Bracken, documents the cemetery and history of Willard State Hospital.


Nearly 6,000 Willard patients are buried in the hospital cemetery. One patient, Lawrence Mocha, dug the graves for an estimated over 900 Willard patients buried in the main hospital cemetery. Also buried there is a member of the famous Dover Eight, as well as a member of the military party that captured John Wilkes Booth. In 1896 38 known Civil War Veterans buried there, as well as former inmates of the asylum. This Cemetery is inactive and maintained by the hamlet of Willard. The only graves with headstones are those of the Civil War veterans.


  • History of Willard Asylum for the Insane and the Willard State Hospital, by Robert E Doran
  • The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, Peter Stastny, and Lisa Rinzler
  • The Inmates Of Willard 1870 to 1900 / A Genealogy Resource, by Linda S. Stuhler
  • The Architecture of Madness-Insane Asylums in the United States by Carla Yanni