Though asylums often carry connotations of dark and torturous existences, Willard and other institutions like it were intended to be a better alternative to systems in place for taking care of the mentally ill. In the early 19th century, those without anyone to care for them and incapable of taking care of themselves were left to almshouses (basically shelters) which were overcrowded and under resourced. In response to these squalid conditions,New York’s Surgeon General Dr. Sylvester D. Willard proposed a state-run hospital for the insane. Abraham Lincoln himself signed off on the proposal a mere six days before his death.
Willard welcomed its first patient in 1869. She was a woman named Mary Rote, described as “demented and deformed”, who had spent ten years confined to an almshouse. The theme of horrific neglect would follow in patients admitted later. One girl had been shackled in a cell since childhood, another patient arrived at Willard in a chicken crate. The dreadful situations patients were arriving from coupled with the lack of understanding of mental disability meant that Willard essentially became a dumping ground for undesirables. Patients’ afflictions ranged from severe mental and physical handicaps to “nervousness”, “chronic” to “acute” insanity, “feeblemindedness”, and “lunacy.”
After Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 expose on the deplorable conditions at Willowbrook Asylum, numbers in large institutions declined sharply. Willard Asylum discharged its final patient in 1995 and shuttered its doors for good. Now some of its buildings are used as training facilities and dormitories by the Department of Correctional Facilities, which maintains the grounds, but many of them have been left to rot for so long that they are totally unusable. In these, asylum life has been preserved in the artifacts left behind by staff and patients.
In the dim light of civil twilight, the corridors of the Maples Building at Willard State Hospital take on an ethereal blue glow. Built in 1872, the Maples Building was a miniaturized Kirkbride Plan building, and three more soon followed. Willard - originally the New York State Asylum for the Chronic Insane - was a place from which patients were never expected to leave; some would spend the rest of their days wandering corridors such as this one.
Contrary to the way the asylum is portrayed in the media, these places actually did go out of their way to provide as high a standard of living as budget and resources allowed. Willard State Hospital - formerly the New York State Asylum for the Chronic Insane - in Romulus, New York was no different. A long-term care facility for patients with little or no hope of ever leaving the asylum system, Willard provided a number of amusements for patients, including weekly double features.
In the late 50s or early 60s, Willard obtained a pair of 1940s-vintage Brenkert projectors, and added a projection booth to the theatre in which patients would often put on plays, variety shows, and other productions. The projectors are pictured in the top photograph, and the projectionist’s desk in the middle photograph.
I was fortunate enough to be offered a tour of the theatre a few years ago, and got to spend a good half-hour taking long-exposures in the booth, which was awkwardly lit by a flourescent light (I set my camera to adjust for that tonality of light, but the yellow in the photos comes from the bright yellow paint on the walls). The historian giving me the tour informed me that they used to frequently show nitrate films into the early 80s when the projectors were permanently turned off at the asylum’s closure - certainly a fire hazard! And probably a good reason for the “NO SMOKNG” (sic) sign above the projectionist’s desk.
The walls were covered in schedules for the weekly double features (bottom photograph) - all films were rated either Approved, G, or PG - films that were not Approved or bore R or X ratings were never screened (the PG-13 rating did not exist until after the theatre was abandoned). The projectionist (who apparently ran the theatre for its entire existence) left personal notes on some of the films - apparently, “The Boy Friend” was “BAD, BAD, BAD”. Films were primarily borrowed from local theaters finished with their rental of the reels - the asylum could borrow them without rental fee on their way back to the studio. The projectionist was responsible for obtaining two films each week, showing them, and returning them.
Life in the asylum may not have been ideal. But the projectionist at Willard State Hospital did the best he could to make sure that, at least once a week, the patients had a good time.
This barber’s chair was left in the 1872 Maples Building when Willard State Hospital was mostly-abandoned in the 1980s; it’s likely that it was left behind because it was too heavy to move. Years of sitting in the humid building has left the chair in rough shape.
The Maples Building at Willard State Hospital, formerly the New York State Asylum for the Chronic Insane. A facility for patients that were never expected to leave the psychiatric hospital system, Willard expanded rapidly. There was originally a Kirkbride-plan building, Chapin Hall - but then there were four miniature Kirkbride-plan buildings built in short order to deal with the population explosion. This was the first of them, constructed in 1872. Despite the somewhat dodgy appearance of the exterior, the interior is in pretty good shape!
Like many asylums, Willard State Hospital had many recreational facilities - including a bowling alley in the basement of the Recreation Building that also housed the theatre and projection booth. As the State asylum that was intended to house patients who were never expected to leave the institutional system, it was important to have plenty of amusements - enough to last a lifetime, as it were. This bowling alley was much less ornate than the bowling alley at Rockland State Hospital - which makes sense, since it is of a much earlier design. At some point, the alley was retrofitted with pinsetters and flourescent lights (see top photo); the lanes themselves are holding up quite well for their age, although the wood - unvarnished in years - is starting to separate and weather. Scoresheets and a built-in ashtray still sit atop the scoring table (middle photo), and patients would have to calculate their scores manually - these early pinsetters had no electronic score features. In the bottom photograph, it’s clear how the pins were set before the alley was retrofitted - the were manually centered on 10 black dots carefully painted onto the wood. One wonders how many games were played here before the alley was abandoned in the 1980s.
At the front of the Administrative Pavilion in the center of the Maples Building at Willard State Hospital, geriatric chairs are piled up willy-nilly under a “NO SMOKING” sign. Maples was an 1872 adjunct ward building constructed on a miniature version of the Kirkbride plan at what was then the “New York State Asylum for the Chronic Insane”. Patients who were never expected to leave the asylum system were sent to this institution; many of them lived to old age, hence why every abandoned building is full of these geriatric chairs. During civil twilight, they take on a rather eerie feeling.
When the Maples Building at Willard State Hospital was abandoned in the mid-80s, artifacts were grouped by type and spread about the hospital, with the exception of larger, harder-to-move objects like the barber’s chair on the other side of the building. In the room portrayed through the doorway at left of frame, chairs are piled haphazardly in a former patient room. Sadly, the 1872 building built on a miniaturized Kirkbride model is in terrible shape; as seen here, this hallway - with a patient bedframe in the foreground - has lost most of its pressed tin ceiling. With a construction fence surrounding it, it’s likely only a matter of time before the building is demolished.
The Maples Building at Willard State Hospital is a treasure-trove of forgotten artifacts, relics from the past strewn about the 1872 building that was designed for patients who were never meant to leave the asylum system. Originally known as the New York State Asylum for the Chronic Insane, Willard was the “end of the line” in the New York asylum system - the place where they sent patients that were expected to show no signs of recovery; to live out the rest of their lives in buildings such as this. Thus, the asylum expanded rapidly. Four miniature Kirkbride-style buildings were built shortly after the full sized Kirkbride, Chapin Hall, demolished in the 80s. Maples was the first of these. Now, it has been abandoned for ages, and it appears they left in a hurry. A barber’s chair still sits in the room where patients could get a cut; coats still hang on coatracks upstairs, and geriatric chairs have been piled up in one of the first-floor dayrooms. Here, around the corner from that dayroom, a broken hairdryer chair has been collecting dust for decades. As it does not appear that there is any hurry to demolish Willard, it will likely collect dust for decades more.
Four lounge chairs in the 1872 Maples Building at Willard State Hospital - formerly the New York State Asylum for the Chronic Insane. This building was built on a miniature-scale implementation of Thomas Story Kirkbride’s linear plan; three others soon followed. The campus already had one full-scale Kirkbride Plan building - Chapin Hall - which was sadly demolished in the 1980s.