Letchworth Village, located in Thiells, New York, was opened in 1911. It is modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, with its columns and triangular porticos and heavy-looking stone wall structure. According to Tom Kirsch, the creator and primary photographer for Opacity, an international urban exploration database, it started off as a facility to house the “epileptic and feeble minded”, and was known as the Eastern New York State Custodial Asylum. It then grew into a center for the developmentally disabled. Shortly after opening, it was renamed after William Pryor Letchworth, a philanthropist, 19th century social worker and advocate for better asylum conditions and mental patients’ rights.
The asylum was built as a farm colony, which meant that the patients were given different tasks on the hospital’s campus such as weeding, planting, digging and other small gardening chores, mostly for the purpose of keeping them busy and teaching them the ‘therapeutic value’ of hard work. These farm colonies were set up like small cities, and everything that a normal small town would have was available to both patients and staff on the 163 acres of land on which Letchworth sat. These commodities included a fire house, boiler house, laundry facilities, residence buildings for doctors and attendants, a bakery, and a refrigeration plant. Also, separate from the psychiatric asylum was a tuberculosis ward.
The facility hoped to adhere to Letchworth’s dream of optimal and ethical care of patients, and it was his hope that the institution would serve as a model institution of humane practice. Patients were to be taught and helped so that they could explore the hope of returning into society, as opposed to being oppressed and locked away, receiving little care from the doctors and nurses who were responsible for them. As the years went on, this dream of Letchworth’s was shattered, and abuse and neglect became more prevalent than ever. According to Geraldo Rivera, a newscaster for WABC-TV, in 1972, there were observed to be “…at least 300 able-bodied patients, both physically and mentally able to work outside the institution, are not being allowed to. They’re being used to fill the places of the too few employees, and are paid two dollars a week for their efforts.” Children were left in the asylums, unsupervised and unclothed due to the understaffing of nurses and caretakers at the facility. A good percentage of the children who resided at Letchworth were very bright, and not subject to any mental disability or incapacitation…they were simply abandoned by their parents and left to the state. Besides being blatantly neglected, many patients were both physically and sexually abused by employees. Shortly before Letchworth Village closed its doors in 1996, even employees complained of abuse from fellow employees at the hospital. In the 1980s, Rockland county created a building for teachers, where they would be trained and certified.
Today, Letchworth village sits on the same 163 acres of land where it was originally developed. Part of it has been transformed into a junior high school, which serves students in the Haverstraw-Stony Point area. The buildings have been subject to graffiti, deterioration, and even three reported cases of severely damaging arson in the past six years. I spoke with first-year student Emma Caster-Dudzick, who has toured these buildings herself. Emma found out about Letchworth through kids at her school, who she says attend mostly at night. Emma reflected on the sensory images that she experienced during her visit to Letchworth Village, “Everything about the place is dirty, old, and creepy. Walking into the buildings involves stepping over a lot of crumbling drywall, cigarette butts, and overgrown vegetation. And once you’re inside, it’s very, very dark, and the walls are covered in spray paint. It tells you that a lot of people have been there since it closed. I remember an old toilet, and bed frames, and books. Things look very wrecked up and toyed with. Every surface was dirty and old.” While at Letchworth, Emma did not run into any other visitors, but she did run into police who happened to be patrolling the area. Her meeting with the local law enforcement was not pleasant. “There were no police there until the end of our visit”, Caster-Dudzick says. “They told us to leave, and said that they would have arrested us for criminal trespassing had they seen us actually emerging from a building.”
The town of Haverstraw has expressed its interest in developing the area, and has considered offers from WCI, a real estate developing enterprise based out of Florida. According to writer Akiko Matsuda, the town would receive $35 million dollars from the company for all the land occupied by Letchworth Village. This extensive piece of property would then be used to build senior citizen housing for people in the Haverstraw area. The town would then use the $35 million to pay off certain debts, so as to offset tax increases for Haverstraw, Thiells, and Stony Point area residents. This plan was considered in 2008, and the decaying buildings, including the scorched Stewart Hall, are still standing.
Recently, I decided to go to Thiells and uncover the mystery that is Letchworth Village myself. Outside, remnants of the stone artifices are still standing, though some are burned and dilapidated. What was once a beautiful, yet intimidating series of buildings, short in height (all of Letchworth’s buildings are no higher than two stories), is now crumbling in the clearing where it rests, an eerie reminder of the place it once was. Cats wander through the fields, and greenery swallows the stone edifices, as if threatening to take them over. Inside, paint peels off the walls, and a distinctly stale smell creeps through the air. Old medical equipment, chairs, desks, bed frames, medical carts, and sinks lay amongst the rubble, rusting away, forced to bear exposure to the elements and the wind, rain and snow that thrusts its way through the shattered windows and open thresholds of doors. There are rooms full of binders of old files, documents and information, some of which are scattered on desks and on the floor. When walking through these thresholds and these hallways, one cannot help but be overcome with a feeling of sadness, as if they are able to feel the pain that these patients of the past have felt, to see the horrors these patients saw.