A merciless rain drenched the Long Island Railroad station at Kings Park, New York as E and myself sipped our corner store tea under an awning. The sun had long since set, and we still had twenty minutes of waiting in the downpour before the next train arrived to take us back to Brooklyn. The day had been long but successful, with marauding patrols dodged and landmark buildings explored. My first attempt at photographing a classic east coast asylum, and E’s first attempt at any urban exploring whatsoever had gone off without a hitch.
Kings Park Psychiatric Center is one of a string of huge mental institutions built on Long Island in the late 1800s along with Pilgrim State Hospital and Central Islip Psychiatric Center, as well as Edgewood State Hospital (built in the early ’40s). For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these institutions held thousands of patients, sent there from the teeming asylums closer to New York City to live and work on ‘farm colonies’ – at first the Long Island asylums were just that. Patients would tend fields and livestock, build furniture and sew their own clothing. During the early to mid 19th century, the campus was mostly comprised of small, scattered cottage-style buildings spread out over several hundred acres of land adjoining Smithtown Bay. When the state of New York took over the campus in 1895, it was renamed the Kings County Branch Asylum. The surrounding area, known at the time as Saint Johnland, was renamed as well at the behest of local residents who did not want their town and its railroad station associated with the asylum, giving the area and future township its current name: Kings Park.
The cottages that originally comprised Kings Park. The goliath Building 93 would later be built on this site. (courtesy LIOddities)
It was believed that this simple lifestyle had a curative effect on the patients, though the asylum’s remote location was no doubt also a form of banishment for some. In time, Kings Park eventually grew to be its own self-sustaining city. It had its own power station, telephone exchange, even its own spur line off of the Long Island Railroad so coal (and initially, patients until buses took over) could be brought in by rail. By the 1950s, the KPPC campus covered a huge area of northern Suffolk county, with more than 150 buildings dotting the rolling landscape. Instead of growing outward, the hospital began to build upward, with the iconic 13-story Building 93 reaching skyward in 1939. Designed by New York’s state architect, William E. Haugaard, Building 93 was for many years the geriatric ward, treating and housing patients older than 55. Along with 93, there were dedicated patient ward buildings, a fully-equipped medical/surgical building, a police and fire station, even a boathouse on the Nissequogue River.
Unfortunately, the same gremlins that plagued the east coast asylums were present at KPPC. Overcrowding, the very reason that KPPC had been built in the first place, became a chronic problem. By 1931, almost 5800 patients were living at Kings Park – while the facility was only made to hold 3700. The problem was not confined to Kings Park – at the system’s peak in 1950, New York’s asylums held more than 33,000 patients, most in the teeming facilities on Long Island. Stories of patient mistreatment, widespread abuse of electroshock therapy and even unnecessary prefrontal lobotomies abounded, many of them bearing truth.
The development of antipsychotic drugs such as Thorazine in the 1960s was the nail in the coffin for Kings Park as well as the rest of the Long Island asylums. As drugs became more easily available, the asylums of the east coast began a process of ‘deinstitutionalization’ – in some cases transferring patients to facilities that were still open, like Pilgrim State farther down Long Island. Other patients were simply turned out on the streets, freshly inked prescriptions for drugs with names like Chlorpromazine or Haloperidol in hand. By the early 1990s, Kings Park Psychiatric Center (as it was now called) was only a shadow of its former self, with many of its hundreds of buildings already abandoned. Even Building 93 was not immune; it was slowly emptied of patients, its floors closed off one by one until, by 1990, only the first few were still occupied. In the fall of 1996, the state of New York transferred the last of the patients out, and the 111-year-old asylum was closed down and left to decay.
Earlier in the day, E and myself found our way by train from Brooklyn out to Long Island. The clouds in the distance menaced, but despite the weather we were determined to get into some mischief. The walk from the train station proved straightforward, and the two of us ventured up the road and into the massive campus. Most of the former hospital site was turned into the Nissequoge River State Park in 1996, so getting close to the buildings wasn’t difficult. Just over the ridge lay the first big edifice: Building 7, the medical building. E and I went around back to assess entry, but to our dismay, a pickup truck was waiting at the loading dock. Workers would be around, and getting in would be much harder with them nearby. We poked around for a moment, but no sooner had we tried a few doors than the 5-0 showed up.
Fortunately, they were friendly, and we chatted to the officers who approached us about the history surrounding the building we stood in front of. One of the deputies told us: “We see a lot of photographers out here, trying to get into the old buildings.” Funny how that works, I’ve no idea who’d do a thing like that. We, of course, promised to remain outside all the fences, and the cops headed off. We later saw the same two Suffolk County deputies we’d met hanging out on the roof of 7 – no doubt scoping out the KPPC campus from one of the best viewpoints around. As for us, we left the party and continued up the hill. We had business to attend to.
E checks a door at Building 23, the rec centre.
Building 93 is easily the most imposing of the extant buildings at KP. It towers over the campus with only the smokestack from the former power plant to challenge its rule. Though the building was surrounded by a fence that easily hit 15 feet, we had a mission. We pondered. We called our local contacts. We schemed. Eventually, we found a way through the fences and into the building, all the while keeping an eye out for the police we knew were now aware of our presence. We cracked 93, and the payoff was big.
The murals covering the walls of 93’s occupational therapy room are something of an enigma to this day. Though no one knows exactly who painted the figures on the wall, legend has it that a professional cartoonist was the creator. Percy Crosby, creator of the Skippy series of comics (yes, namesake of the peanut butter as well), was sent to Kings Park in January of 1949. He had been committed after an alleged suicide attempt following his mother’s death. At the recommendation of his uncle-in-law, Arthur Soper, Crosby was declared a paranoid schizophrenic by the state and confined to Kings Park indefinitely. Shady circumstances surrounded his confinement; for instance, the makers of Skippy peanut butter, Rosefield Packing Co., quickly trademarked the ‘Skippy’ name as their own, swearing under oath that no one else held claim to the name – certainly no one like Crosby, who at the time was still waiting for transfer to KPPC at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan after his suicide attempt only five days prior. Though he had been fighting Rosefield for years in court due to their use of the name, the peanut butter producers won out in the end. Crosby had been under audit by the IRS for tax purposes (an audit that some sources claim was politically motivated), and could not afford a legal fight from within the confines of the asylum.
In 1954, Rosefield sold the Skippy brand name to Corn Products Corporation (since renamed Best Foods Inc.) for $7.5 million (nearly $63m today).
Crosby died at Kings Park on 8 December 1964 from a heart attack. By virtue of his service in WWI, he was given a military burial at Pine Lawn Veterans Cemetery rather than in the asylum’s ‘potters field’ – where he would have been given a small grave marker with a number. It’s unknown as to whether he continued to work from the asylum; all incoming and outgoing mail was screened, so anything sent to publishers may have been lost before it ever left Kings Park. What he did leave behind, however, may be the mural covering the walls of the room E and myself found ourselves in. The sound of patients was long gone, their cries and murmurs now replaced by the sound of the rain outside and the occasional ‘shck-CHK’ of my shutter opening and closing.
The rain began to taper off briefly as we made good our escape from 93. As soon as it did, a low mist moved into take its place, giving the asylum an eerie air as we made our way back down Kings Park Boulevard to the train station. It seemed fitting, if slightly cliché. This place may have been a comfort for some, but for many it was no more than a prison, a place to be dreaded. Either way, Kings Park is a place with a certain character; its immensity is matched only by the emotional weight borne by the buildings. In the one hundred and twenty six years since its opening, Kings Park Psych had evolved from a collection of small cottages into a sprawling campus of more than a hundred buildings swarming with thousands of patients. It still remains to be seen what will become of the facility; various developers have made bids for the property (not counting the state park, owned by NY State), but nothing has materialized as of yet. For now, the asylum will continue to decay, visited only by the curious.