The Costs of Forgetting
When considering the futures of the 36 remaining Kirkbride Plan hospitals for the mentally ill, it may be tempting to argue that structures with such disturbing histories should be demolished “out of respect for the former patients.” On one level this reaction is understandable. Although awe-inspiring, these are buildings with complex and often painful histories.
There are, however, powerful counterarguments.
The first is ecological. The most sustainable building is the one you already have, and the erasure of such massive and historically layered structures is an unacceptable waste of embodied energy, irreplaceable material know-how and cultural memory in a time of increasingly scarce and costly resources. Our imagination and resourcefulness – or lack thereof – are reflected in our capacity to find new lives for our buildings, places and products, especially in light of the negative impacts of material extraction, transport and construction on our shared ecosphere. Other nations and peoples have adaptively repurposed their buildings from time immemorial as a way of living with and learning from their histories, difficult or not. Can’t we?
In a previous post, I’ve offered a second counterargument based on the perils of “forgetting”:
Erasure of these immense three-dimensional historical documents [Kirkbrides] and the stories they contain, whether by deliberate demolition or by neglect, is a form of group repression. Yet it only temporarily subdues the past. Such selective “forgetting” pushes distressing communal memories into our collective unconscious and there they persist, deepening prejudices toward the mentally ill and breeding injustices toward one another.
If we were to erase all the structures in the world that have difficult pasts, there would be very little of the built environment to think with, and we can’t learn from our past to envision different futures without things to think with – object lessons. Ironically, many U.S. travelers will go to remarkable lengths to visit the Tower of London, the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, the Great Wall of China, or the Great Pyramid of Giza – all historic landmarks whose construction and histories are imbued with tragedy and human suffering – yet do not blink at razing a nationally registered asylum for another Walmart or an empty field.
A recent article in The Atlantic ponders why “America still can’t figure out how to memorialize the sins of our history,” while offering powerful examples of memorialization from Germany that span in scale from concentration camps to solpersteins (stumbling blocks). Such memorials are critical to think with, both for cultural accountability and to energize transformative ideas.
The importance of object lessons offers a third counterargument, which fuels our activities at PreservationWorks (PW). The Kirkbride Plan hospitals are priceless three-dimensional documents that inform and inspire imaginative proposals for reuse. I offer as evidence recent projects produced by twelve students from my BFA Architectural Design Studio at the Parsons School of Constructed Environments.
During the spring 2023 semester, my Junior Architectural Design Studio explored notions of architectural remembrance and adaptive reuse for three Kirkbride Plan hospitals – Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital (GPPH), Hudson River State Hospital (HRSH), and Athens State Hospital (aka The Ridges). These three structures were among the seventy-five “Kirkbride Plan” hospitals built across North America and Australia according to revolutionary principles for treating mental illness that were formalized in the mid-nineteenth century by my distant relative, Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809-83). A Quaker doctor, T. S. Kirkbride published his influential treatise on the construction and management of the ideal psychiatric hospital (1854, 1880) based on Enlightenment beliefs in the therapeutic powers of architecture, landscape, beauty, and respectful care.
Across fifteen weeks, twelve Parsons Juniors developed individual proposals for two separate studio assignments: designing memorials for Greystone and Hudson, and adapting the Kirkbride Plan hospitals at Athens and Hudson for senior living. Based on actual projects currently in development at each of the three sites, both assignments enabled students to engage with community members and local officials, site contractors and developers, while introducing them to different modes and models of adaptive reuse.
The projects also challenged students to ask big, rangy questions:
Memorializing Greystone and Hudson
For the semester’s first project, the students devised memorials for the Greystone and Hudson Kirkbrides in remembrance of former patients and staff, and to help future visitors grapple with their complex histories. The studio was divided into two groups of six students to generate six distinct memorial proposals for each site. The Greystone group included Steven Clavijo, Runze He, Katie Kim, Sandro Tahhan, Yael Weber and Lloyd Zhang, and the Hudson group included Aly Akers, Kesang Andrugsurba, Chen Feng, Hazel Kim, Maikel Lin, and Serene Soyannwo.
The students examined site photographs, drawings and documentation, modeled their concepts, and discussed their ideas with guest critics early in the project and a few weeks later at the final review. I’m grateful for the participation of Dave Helmer (Executive Director) and Melanie Bump (Curator, Collections & Exhibitions), from the Morris County Park Commission, and Yvonne Laube, a PreservationWorks member and local advocate for Hudson who serves on the Poughkeepsie Historic Planning Commission. I’m also indebted to my PW colleagues for their knowledge and enthusiasm – Lisa Marie Blohm (PW President), Rusty Tagliareni (PW Trustee), and former PW Board Member, Robert Duffy. The students benefited tremendously from their feedback and range of experience.
Several proposals centered on the site of the current or former Central Main building, while others took advantage of the immense footprint of the former hospitals to create a distributed memorial in a park-like setting, evoking T.S. Kirkbride’s integration of well-appointed architecture and landscape to support a therapeutic environment.
Students also had the opportunity to think with architectural fragments that had been salvaged from each hospital. At Hudson, ninety-nine window frames have been set aside for use in a memorial, and other materials are still available on site for potential reuse. Additionally, key parts of the hospital, such as the North Tower, have been independently determined to be structurally sound and may yet be preserved and repurposed.
Yvonne Laube is the Poughkeepsie community liaison with the site developers, Saber. Under her leadership the HRSH Memorial Committee, including eleven regional historians, artists and former HRSH nurses, was formed and met for over a year (2020-21) to develop ideas for a memorial. I was delighted to participate in this committee and contribute design concepts and historical text. Our initial ideas were shared with Saber leadership, though next steps remain uncertain. Vigilance is needed to prevent the unnecessary loss of remaining structures.
For their Hudson Memorial proposals, Kesang Andrugsurba, Hazel Kim, Maikel Lin and Serene Soyannwo utilized the salvaged windows in unique ways: Kesang distributed windowed kiosks along the perimeter of Olmsted and Vaux’s Great Lawn, incorporating QR codes to offer historic views of everyday life at the HRSH. Hazel created an elegant and monumental window wall at the rear of Central Main, while Maikel embedded the window frames in thick, curving walls of repurposed bricks, forming an amphitheatrical setting in front of Central Main. Serene offered two optional locations for her proposal of a free-standing windowed pavilion – in front of Central Main or as an entry portico to the North Tower. Chen Feng transformed timber from the North Wing’s roof structure into a latticed pergola behind Central Main, and Aly Akers repurposed the North Tower as a gallery and museum, while relocating it to the highest point on the property to provide a clear lookout to the Hudson River.
At Greystone, students reflected on architectural details that a team of volunteers and the demolition contractors (Northstar) had successfully extracted from the Central Main façade in the fall of 2015, before it was reduced to rubble. Through the passion and tenacity of Robert Duffy, Lisa Marie Blohm, Jody Johnson-Casale, Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews, eighty ornamental features (including sixteen sandstone and granite columns) were preserved, inventoried and stored onsite with the support of the Morris County Parks and Historical Commission.
Soon after the fall of Greystone, the Greystone Park Memorial group (a satellite of volunteers from PreservationWorks that includes Blohm, Duffy, Tagliareni and myself) coalesced around Clara Daly’s sketch of a triumphal arch re-composed from the salvaged façade fragments. Unfortunately, the salvaged fragments represent only a fraction of the materials required to faithfully reconstruct Greystone’s facade – a reality illustrated in Parsons student Katie Kim’s analysis. Also, despite the care taken by Northstar, many pieces were chipped and dinged during their extraction. Of course, they were never intended to have been removed in the first place: as the founding managers wrote in their first annual report, “[Greystone] will ever remain as a monument to the enlightened liberality of the age and the State that gave it existence.”
Despite their bumps and bruises, or perhaps because of them, these fragments are now imbued with a power of their own; touchstones of the spirit of Greystone as a place for the placeless, an aim no less significant now than it was almost 150 years ago. Rather than “fixing” them up for a faux, Disneyesque reconstruction, it seems most appropriate for the fragments to tell their stories as they are, speaking on behalf of a remarkable building that can no longer speak for itself.
For their Greystone Park Memorial proposals, students tapped into the talismanic power of the architectural elements in strikingly distinct ways. Where Sandro Tahhan and Yael Weber concentrated their memorials on the footprint of the original Central Main building, Sandro reconstructed the façade horizontally, as an archaeological ruin under glass and beneath visitors’ feet, just out of reach, while Yael used the sixteen columns to support a pergola with growing vines, under which a large sandbox would contain the architectural artifacts, directly accessible to children and guests. Steven Clavijo traced the subterranean locations of Greystone’s tunnels (a common Kirkbride Plan feature) with pathways that converge at an altar composed of several key remnants. And for their proposals, Runze He, Katie Kim, and Lloyd Zhang strategically distributed the fragments across the site as boundary markers and objects of interest, framed by judicious landscaping of grasses and trees that embrace current uses of the site as a public park, including such festivities as the annual 5K run. (All six of the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital Memorial projects are linked to a Facebook post by the Greystone Park Memorial group.)
“Rising From the Ruins”
In his recent cover story for the Morristown Daily Record, “Rising from the Ruins” (July 2, 2023), William Westhoven shared the recent progress on a Greystone memorial, featuring several of the student memorial proposals and interviews with members of our Greystone Park Memorial group. He also recounted the unfortunate and unnecessary loss of Greystone’s Kirkbride. Designed by Samuel Sloan and opened in 1876, Greystone was abandoned in 2008 and unceremoniously demolished in 2015 despite strong nationwide protests and an unjustifiable cost of $34 million to New Jersey taxpayers. That same year, the National Register for Historic Preservation ranked Greystone among the top five architectural losses in the United States.
Fortunately, not all was lost. Over the past eight years since Greystone’s demolition, I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to several significant projects that emerged in its wake, including Johnson-Casale and Blohm’s award-winning video, Greystone Rising; Mathews and Tagliareni’s documentary, Greystone’s Last Stand and award-winning book, Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital; Stephanie Kip’s research website, Greystone Oral History Project; and of course, PreservationWorks itself, a nationwide non-profit that formally absorbed Preserve Greystone’s 501c3 charter, once Greystone was lost.
Fittingly, the rescue of Greystone’s façade details for a future memorial project was one of PreservationWorks’ first activities. Now, due to the unflagging efforts of my colleagues and local officials, and energized by the student proposals, the timeline for that future memorial is finally taking shape.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Transforming Memory, which will focus on the second project assignment for my spring 2023 BFA Architectural Design Studio, adaptive reuse design proposals for senior living in the Central Main building and North Wing of Hudson River State Hospital, and the West Wing of Athens State Hospital (aka the Ridges), in Athens, OH.
Dr. Robert Kirkbride
Professor of Architecture and Product Design, Parsons School of Design
Links to previous Kirkbride on Kirkbride posts: