Utica State Hospital (Historic Asylums)

Utica State Hospital

Utica, New York

Please click on the thumbnail images below to see historic postcards. The last image is of Marcy State Hospital, a different facility located 10 miles away.

The following text, provided by Mark Harf, a native of Utica, New York, is courtesy of the Greater Utica Landmarks Society, June 11, 1981 and an exhibit which was held in the Fountain Elms building of the Munson Williams Proctor Museum of Art in Utica in the mid-eighties:

The main building of the Utica Psychiatric Center (originally called the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica) was completed in 1843 and is internationally recognized as a monumental example of the Greek Revival architecture tradition. The building was the first New York State owned and operated institution to care for the mentally ill, and it also was one of the earliest structures to incorporate progressive theories on the treatment of mental illness. It was also one of the first such institutions in the United States.

The huge size of the stone structure is perhaps its most significant feature; being 550 feet long and averageing 50 feet in depth. The projecting central portico is 120 feet long and is dominated by six limestone columns 48 feet high and eight feet in diameter at the base. "No European public edifice has a grander Greek Doric portico than that which dominates the tremendous four story front block...." architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock wrote in his definitive Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.

The prevailing medical theory of the 1830's advocated that patients be segregated by sex and type and degree of illness, with each group housed in a self contained unit. As far as possible, the interior layout of the building was arranged to provide optimum conditions for the patients.

In 1850, a listing of accomodations noted: 380 single rooms for patients, 24 for their attendants, 20 dormitories each accomodating from 5 to 12 persons, 16 parlors or day rooms, 12 dining rooms, 24 bathing rooms, 24 closets and 24 water closets. The mechanical systems of the original building incorporated the latest improvements. Hot air woodburning furnaces in the basement provided heat for the building. Ventilators opening from the rooms to flues in the walls allowed air to circulate constantly. Hot and cold running water was supplied to each floor, the cold water coming from the roof while the warm water was pumped by a steam engine from basement storage tanks.

Dr. Amariah Brigham, the first director, made a significant contribution to the treatment of mental illness. He believed insanity was a disease that could be treated by putting the patients to work on the hospital's farm, grounds, and other useful occupational projects. He established a printing shop where in 1844, he published the American Journal of Insanity, the first publication of its kind in the world (and forerunner of the American Psychiatric Journal).

In 1836, a New York State commission was appointed to purchase a site and erect a charitable institution for mental patients. In 1837, 130 acres of land were purchased for $16,000. New York State contributed $10,000 and the remainder was raised by Utica's citizens (total cost at the time exceeded $285,000, which made it one of the most expensive and largest institutions of its time). Captain William Clarke appointed a commissioner in 1837, was the architect of the powerful Greek revival design. His plans called for three additional buildings, similar in design to the existing building to be built in a quadrangle. The four buildings were to be connected by glass verandas and the total space enclosed was approximately thirteen acres. The grand design proved too costly, so the other buildings were never completed.

The Utica building's Greek Revival, doric columns (six of them) are eight feet in diameter at the base and 48 feet high. They are at the main entrance which also has a gray facade made of upstate New York limestone. Two four story main wings extend laterally from the entrance. Later construction added wings to either end, greatly increasing its capacity (parts of these additions have since been demolished). One estimate compared the asylum's original square footage to that of a 26 story sky scraper. In the attic, visitors may still see murals and the stage of a patient's theater; sunlight still floods the vacant day rooms downstairs.

Yet, from its earliest days, Utica was overcrowded and underfunded. In 1843, the average daily population was 109 with a 49 percent recovery rate; by 1869 the population was 600, the recovery rate had dropped to 26 percent, and seven times as many insane persons were still in poorhouses. Although advocates of Brigham's "moral treatment" philosophy were hard pressed to admit that some cases were beyond their reach, a growing number of physicians and legislators began to see a separate category for the chronic insane; these patients were incurable, they argued, and they needed only custodial care.*

Sources: Greater Utica Landmarks Society "Old Main" Guided Tour Leaflet 1981, and 1985 Exhibit, "Silent Voices", at Munson Williams Proctor Institute Museum of Art (Utica) with Leaflet text by Brad Edmonson.

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