“What could be more romantic than a leisurely stroll through an asylum?” I asked Miss Bronwen as we got out of the car, which was parked along the Nissequogue River, in Nissequogue River State Park, also known as the campus of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center. She arched her eyebrow and handed me my walking stick as we got out of the car. Walking stick is a bit of a misnomer, for it’s actually a trek pod – an ingenious if over-priced device which not only extends up and down, but the bottom folds out to make a tripod for photography. Quite handy for places like this, which as I just read, after the fact that photography of the grounds is forbidden. Oops!
We set off towards Long Island Sound, veering left at the marina onto a lovely wooded trail. The trees were almost at the apex of their fall colors, the day was a trifle warm but still distinctly fall-like. As the trail reaches the harbor, it veers to the left and begins a gentle climb. Once at the top of the bluffs, it skirts the edge for a bit, with nice views out over the water, and we watched as people worked to put their boats away for winter.
Our reverie was broken as a jogger came hurtling down the trail, nearly tossing us off the bluff into the drink, so we made our way further along, till the trail opened onto an expanse of green grass, a large open lawn and a scattering of old, abandoned brick buildings, firmly boarded up. This was our entrance onto the campus of the center proper, and to be honest, I never know for sure when I’m in public or when I’m in restricted territory. Typically it’s only when I come up to a fence and notice a sign on the opposite side which informs me that I’m trespassing. But these buildings are set back from the main area, and judging from the lack of information about them online, not high on the list of urban adventurers.
Sightseeing at Kings Park isn’t for everyone. There’s an air of creepiness and oppression that hangs over the place. Kings Park Psychiatric Center was established in New York City in 1885, and was originally called Kings County Asylum. Originally in Brooklyn, it was a farm colony, where patients worked in farm related activities. Overcrowding forced the relocation to Long Island in the community of St. Johnland. The hospital grew to over 150 buildings, and at its peak housed nearly 10,000 inmates.
Farming activities eventually gave way to frontal lobotomies and electro-shock, which gave way to Thorazine and other drugs. These drugs in theory allowed patients to live in the general population, and by the early 1990s, Kings Park was nearly empty.
Today most of the buildings remain, and much of the grounds have been converted into Nissequogue River State Park. Asbestos and other pollutants complicate destroying the buildings, so they remain empty, increasingly falling in. People come from all over the country to sneak into and explore, and the site is well documented online.
“So the concept was to turn the inmates into farmers? Doesn’t say much for my skill at gardening now does it?” Miss Bronwen spoke as we made our way through some bushes and onto a corridor, open on the sides which led from one building to another. The space was rather pleasant at first, a nice little breezeway, till one noticed the heavy door with peeling paint, and bars over the window.
“I’ve heard that Kings Park was the original source of the term funny farm actually, though I don’t know how much you can believe about anything you hear about the place.”
We cut across the lawns from that complex of buildings across a gently rolling landscape. The campus is huge, once covering about 600 acres, with scores of buildings still standing. We passed Building 136, once used as the medical center and surgery building, and as I pointed this out to Miss Bronwen I caught her shudder at the thought of what types of surgery might have taken place there. Psychiatric care in the late 19th and early 20th centuries could be quite barbaric, and to be honest it wasn’t till the latter part of the twentieth century that it got much better. If you can call turning people into zombies on Thorazine and other drugs better. It’s always been a delicate balance between treating those with a gentle madness with a heavy hand. Who can fairly answer the question of when do you cut away the highs to balance the lows, and leave a person with a bland, even and colorless existence?
And then we were into the wards, past Building 138 which is huge by itself. It’s far too easy to imagine as you walk past the howls and screams and laughter of the inmates, especially after having your perceptions of asylum life distorted by movies all your life.
“So, I’m assuming these places are haunted? Isn’t that why you brought me here today?” she asked.
I thought for a moment before answering. It’s always more fun to play up the ghostly elements of a story, but really, in a place like Kings Park Psychiatric Center, is it necessary?
“Well, there are certainly stories. But my thought in most cases at least, it’s a question of people seeing and hearing what they want to believe. On certain weekends, from what I understand, and certainly to hear the locals talk, it’s a veritable throng inside some of these buildings. And among those who find their way inside, you hear stories about footsteps shadowing you as you wander through the darkened halls. Which is entirely possible, but also entirely probable that it’s simply another group of urban explorers, who may or may not even know they are following you. But I think a lot of it is psychological. It’s illegal to be inside, and there is always the chance of getting busted inside the buildings by the police. So you’re on edge for that, listening for footsteps, finding your way through rubble and debris by flashlight. And of course, I’ve heard rumors that certain elements are engaged in such dastardly pursuits as underage drinking, the smoking of marijuana cigarettes and much worse. Things which I of course would never practice myself, nor condone under any circumstances.” I looked at Miss Bronwen solemnly and nodded.
“Of course,” she said, casting a doubtful eye my way.
We came out onto a surprisingly busy road and scampered up a wooden hill, and yes, by the time I reached the top I was winded, once again trumped by the seemingly inexhaustible well of perkiness possessed by Miss B. I hacked our way through a batch of briars and thistles and we came out in the woods beside Building 40, also known as Infant 1. I imparted this bit of knowledge and we stood looking at the building, with it’s colonial style architectural elements. And as if to drive the point home, I pointed to the ground in front of us, where there lay a small boot, of a style older than even those found in my generation. It must have seemed particularly poignant to her, as her eyes began to well at tears as she looked away from the boot, and made her way to the courtyard which was formed by the surrounding buildings.
Perhaps I should have told her then, but Miss Bronwen has a temper, a particularly biting temper at times, though it is one that wears off quickly, and I suppose I hoped that if she reads the truth here, that I let her believe a story which affected her so deeply, and which of course wasn’t true, that I’d avoid having her wrapping my trek pod around my deserving throat, and that the next time I see her all will be forgotten. I am what is called an optimist.
Building 40, known as Infant 1 was built in 1932. It originally housed inmates, but as the population of Kings Park dwindled it was turned into a daycare center for the hospital’s staff. Much of the staff of the hospital lived on the grounds themselves, and it’s rather harrowing to think of children being raised here. Just across the sidewalk from the playground are three buildings which housed patients. At best, it must have been frightening for children to be raised and cared for, surrounded by insanity. And one must also wonder at the patients watching the children playing from their windows, seeing and remembering themselves long ago.
I broke the silence by telling her a story. “As a child, a friend of mine was mentally retarded, and we accompanied his family the weekend that he went away to a ‘special school.’ It’s hard for a child to understand the difference between retarded and crazy, and for years when faced with the unexplained I kept my mouth shut. The house I grew up in was haunted, and all through my childhood I would on occasion see the figure of a man, sometimes inside the house, sometimes outside. When I asked my parents about ghosts, they said there were no such things, and so I reasoned that they were either wrong, or I was crazy. So I never told them about what I saw, for fear they think me crazy and send me away to that ‘special school.’ It wasn’t until decades later as an adult that I finally brought up the subject, only to find out they knew the place was haunted all along. That’s why the kids slept upstairs, as my dad to this day, still won’t sleep up there alone.”
She looked at me surprised, and with no small degree of sympathy. And I felt about two inches tall for letting her get all emotional. “Did you ever find out who the ghost was?”
“Nope, never did. Still don’t have a clue. But come along. We’re burning daylight and if you find yourself in the asylum as the sun goes down, you can never leave.”
She rolled her eyes and we set off again. Across the road Building 93 scowled down at us. Everywhere you go on the campus, it seems that you can never get away from its watchful eye. We cut back to the road and crossed to another, trying to avoid being run down by passing cars and wishing for a sidewalk. To the right, a road, not much more than a path led into the woods and we set off down it, finding the sign advertising the cottage too enticing to pass up. Of course we never found a cottage, nor any other dwelling on that road. So we turned back the way we came, and spotted a lake shimmering in the afternoon sun, just through the trees.
It was hard to believe that a spot of such beauty could be in the middle of such a horror show. The trees surrounding it were blazing reds and oranges, and we walked a ways around it. It was obviously someone’s favorite fishing hole, and for a while we just sat, watching the reflections of the color on the surface of the water. A stiff breeze had sprung up, and it was eerie to hear it coming through the trees in the surrounding woods, then seeing the water rippling towards us, shattering the mirror’s reflection.
And then we plunged deeper into the woods, her misguidedly trusting me to find our way through. Eventually we did reach a clearing, and through someone’s backyard and we found ourselves standing in the midst of a startlingly new subdivision. Kings Park has grown up around and in some cases inside the campus of the hospital. And one must wonder how it feels to live there at night, looking out the window of your kitchen as you do dishes at the towers of Building 93.
“People in this subdivision all have dishwashers I’m betting,” she said, as I pulled out the phone and tried to call up a map of where we were. And at last the GPS kicked in and we snuck between two houses and back into the woods.
“The creepiest place out here is the Potter’s Field,” I told her. “You go down a dirt road which they use to pile up mulch and other debris. And finally you come out with a rather idyllic hill on one side, which you can see all the way to Long Island Sound. On the other side is just a large open field, and on the far edge is another subdivision, just rows of houses. And out in the field are the unmarked graves of hundreds of people, forgotten by their loved ones, or without friends or relatives, the only memorial to their existence being one tiny stone, placed in memory of them all, well after the fact. If any place out here is haunted, that would be it.”
“How did they know where to dig the graves, if they aren’t marked at all? Did they have a map at least?”
“I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t know that it really mattered to them.”
About that time we came out of the forest and onto a seemingly endless mass of brick building, and a handful of pubescent boys all gathered around one who seemed to be sawing away at a length of pipe. It was hard not to laugh as they jumped. To the left and to the right, about twenty yards away they had posted lookouts, and obviously never expected intruders coming through the woods.
“Busted!” I said and grinned, as Miss Bronwen and I continued on down the road, leaving the boys to their task, and ignoring the comments they were making about her shapely bottom.
“What were they up to?” Miss B. wondered aloud.
“No good. Foul play. A gaggle of miscreants no doubt.”
We were walking the perimeter of the Quad, a group of four building which met in the center, like spokes of a wheel shooting out from a hub. The number of windows was staggering, made even more ominous by the metal bars covering each. We went through the open fence and approached the side entrance. It was really quite beautiful, covered with a red vegetation, an ivy perhaps, like Harvard University for the insane.
“There’s a certain, romantic quality about it really,” I said, as much to myself as her.
“Obviously someone thinks so, bring many of your dates to this spot?”
I looked to her and caught her smirk, then she looked down and I followed her eyes to the used condom laying on the ground.
“I’m guessing many a Kings Park youth has lost their virginity on the grounds here. Which isn’t surprising. When I was in high school, we used to take our dates to cemeteries to neck.”
“Um, neck? You, Ritchie, Potsie and the Fonz would all bring your dates?”
“Yeah, and if Chachi had asked you, you’d have gone in a hot New York moment no doubt.”
She laughed quietly and we turned and kept walking. “It’s well documented that scary situations, and as many a teenage boy knows, horror movies makes many young ladies, er, frisky. So country graveyards, in addition to being secluded, have a certain built-in aphrodisiac effect. And I imagine Kings Park is the same way at night.”
“Well in that case, I must insist we head back to the car now, as I certainly have no wish to find myself here with you after dark, and unable to control my licentious urges.”
We went down the sloping hill towards the road, crossed over and up the opposite side, toward a couple of other buildings, mainly used for maintenance and surprisingly, professionally and clearly marked, as part of a heritage trail. We skirted Building 93 in silence for the most part. Finally she spoke.
“It feels like it’s watching you. Like someone inside there, many people, are watching us. How big is it?”
“Thirteen stories appropriately enough. It was mainly used for the elderly, and as a hospital I believe. And it’s the most popular building for people to break into, more so because of the way it looks I think than for any particular reason. It just has that feel about, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s so, Victorian creepy in a way. It looks hollow, soulless, evil.”
“Inside are murals, really bright and beautiful in a way, probably painted by one of the patients. No one knows who painted them, though they’ve been there as long as the oldest of the employees of the place still alive can remember. Which means back in the sixties at least. There was a famous cartoonist, Percy Crosby who did the Skippy cartoons from the 1920’s to the 1940s, and it could have been him. Other’s say it was a female patient, who no one remembers her name. The style is that of the early twentieth century, and some say that the patient must not have been medicated, which would mean prior to 1955. At any rate, if they finally sell of the place, which eventually is pretty much a certainty, the building will come down, and the murals with it.”
“Probably so, at least some of them. But this one is already beginning to lean dangerously. Bricks are falling at an alarming rate. There used to be a garage attached, but they had to bring it down as the building is listing so much it was no longer attached. The place is full of asbestos, which would cost a fortune to clear out. Even to tear it down and clean it up has been too expensive for anyone to move forward. And of course, politics has gotten in the way. The history of the place is tragic enough, but the thought of these building being torn down, and more sprawl taking their place, is more tragic still. There’s a lot that this place has to remind people about.”
“It’s like this place was a city to itself,” she said as we made our way from the shadow of Building 93.
“It was. It even had its own rail spur for bringing in patients and supplies. It was a city to itself. A city of the insane.”
And suddenly we were watching a soccer match, between two teams of little boys. The parents were crowded around watching, all with the facade of the madhouse looming over them. Kings Park as a town grew up inexorably linked to the asylum. And now that the inmates, as well as the jobs are gone, the face of Kings Park has changed as well. Instead of working locally, Kings Park has turned into a city of commuters.
With the advent of medication which kept the patients more or less functioning, under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, mental patients were released into society, a society they far too often weren’t ready to rejoin. But the move was less about what was best for the patients, and more about saving money. A large percentage of the homeless and lost who wandered the streets of New York City were former inmates of Kings Park.
Some time after the patients at Kings Park Psychiatric Center were released, a worker was clearing out the records in one of the buildings. As he worked deep inside the building, he heard pounding from the front. Startled at first, he went to check it out, only to find a group of former patients outside the door. They had been living outside of the asylum for the first time in years, and wanted to come home again.