Wassaic State School
|Wassaic State School|
|Building Style||Cottage Plan|
|Peak Patient Population||4,500 in 1960s|
The Wassaic State School opened on Jan. 7, 1931 as one of five new statewide facilities established to house and work with individuals who suffered with developmental disabilities. The School operated on a complex in the Town of Amenia hamlet. Prior to the New York Department of Mental Hygiene’s acquisition of the property in 1926, it consisted of three separate farms. The operation was established to alleviate overcrowding at other facilities in New York City and Long Island. Within three years of acquiring the land 27 buildings were already nearing completion.
Among its first buildings were Barton, Carter and Amity halls, all standing two-stories tall and featuring an 11-bay Mission-style design. Ten of the buildings were earmarked for occupancy by 2,400 residents while another four were intended for employee housing; others served auxiliary departments and operations. Most of the buildings constructed in the initial phase were built along two large ovals that were separated by two dining halls and a hospital. In 1933, an administration building was added. Also standing two-stories, that structure boasted a Georgian Revival design and featured a façade that spanned nine bays. A three-story, 13-bay building, named Berkshire Hall, was erected simultaneously to the administration building, and its primary purpose was to provide classroom activities in sewing and arts and crafts for female residents. The large building was also fitted with a bowling alley and auditorium.
The overall layout of the campus was carefully designed according to a specific resident’s treatment, as well as the severity level and demeanor of the individuals involved. Male and female sections were located at opposite ends of the campus and separate infirmaries served each group. It didn’t take long for the state-run facility to reach its capacity. As was experienced at other facilities of its kind, resident escapes occurred occasionally and state and local law enforcement got involved when the runaways engaged in unlawful action.
In the mid-1940s, additional security measures, including the installation of window guards and a new wall, were introduced in an attempt to deal with patients who were considered a high risk for flight. Still, overcrowding plagued many of the state-operated sites and by the 1950s, Wassaic State School reached its peak, housing up to 5,000 patients. In 1965, the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island stimulated scandalous newspaper headlines when an investigation found that it exceeded its capacity by about 2,000 residents, and those living there did so in filth and clad in dirty clothing. The scandal, which was broadcast nationwide, caused state officials to closely examine all the facilities.
The Wassaic operation subsequently went through two name changes through the years, first to the Wassaic Developmental Center and later to the Taconic Developmental Disabilities Service Office (DDSO). The facility closed in late 2013 in order to integrate individuals with developmental disabilities into the community. While residents are now gone from the facility, a support staff still works at the developmental disabilities service office building, located in the center of the complex.
About 600 graves of former patients sits on a hilltop on the campus marked only by numbers on flat iron plaques.