The Old Main is the local name for the original New York State Lunatic Asylum of Utica. It has had many names over its 150-year history: Utica Lunatic Asylum, Utica State Hospital, Utica Psychiatric Center. I didn’t travel out to the Old Main in Utica– not this time. I’ve been past the building a few times, and have walked the grounds when we visited an acquaintance of my husband’s, who was attending an alcohol treatment program there. That was fifteen years ago. I thought I had taken photographs then, as I was awestruck by the building’s architecture, but either I am wrong or I lost the photos. This is a “virtual visit.” Roger Luther has graciously granted permission to post his photos of the Old Main. For a multitude of awesome photos and a good summary of the Old Main’s history, check out Luther’s NYSAsylum.com. The photos are spectacular.
The building was open for patients in 1842, but is in terrible disrepair now. It is famous around the world for its architecture, and was home to many of the “firsts” in mental health in the nation. It was the first institute for the treatment of the mentally ill (previously, people had merely been confined). Remember the movie Jane Eyre? Orson Welles’ character kept his insane wife locked up in a tower. It wasn’t too uncommon for mentally ill and insane people to be locked up and the key thrown away. I personally think that a lot of mental illness came from the ingestion and absorption of lead, which was abundant in pipes, lining cisterns, in paints, etc.
The Old Main was the birthplace of the American Journal of Insanity by Dr. Amariah Brigham (this publication would later spawn the American Psychiatric Journal). Dr. Brigham changed the way mental illness was treated. He believed that most mental illness was caused by environmental problems (contaminated food or water, side effects of diseases) or mental strain (depression, stressful lifestyle). Unlike today’s physicians and Big Pharma, who are endlessly shoving pills down throats, Dr. Brigham believed that strenuous exercise, clean foods, and good hard work would cure most of the mentally ill. He was right, for most cases.
The architecture of the building is truly stunning. This from www.rootsweb.com/%7Easylums/utica_ny:
[It] is internationally recognized as a monumental example of the Greek Revival architecture tradition… The huge size of the stone structure is perhaps its most significant feature; being 550 feet long and averaging 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 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.
In 1850, a listing of accommodations noted: 380 single rooms for patients, 24 for their attendants, 20 dormitories each accommodating 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.
Don’t these old romantic pictures make you feel like you are putting your loved one in a tender, safe place?
Those old Elm trees in the Utica area were so beautiful, weren’t they? Back then, even the asylums were built and kept up to be beautiful. But the truth is, the things that went on inside weren’t always beautiful. The Utica Crib was invented here. It was a combination cage and bed, to restrain the uncontrollable patients. The crib was sometimes suspended with chains and would rock the patient, to soothe him.
Critics called it savage even though some patients preferred it. It was removed from use in 1887.
There’s more history that runs down the Main’s halls. Famed abolitionist, U.S. Congressman, and Hamilton College alumni Gerrit Smith was admitted to the Old Main for over two months. The story is filled with speculation and intrigue! Smith (whose homestead we Mecombers hope to visit this spring when we go on our Heritage Freedom Trail trip) was a “Free-Soil” advocate, and an outspoken supporter of violent abolitionist John Brown. (We hope to visit John Brown’s historic site, also!) “They” say it was John Brown who started the Civil War.
To be associated with such a “vigilante” as John Brown was political suicide. After Brown’s failed raid on an arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and his hanging a few weeks later, Gerrit Smith was fingered for aiding and abetting Brown’s violent raid. Smith was promptly admitted to the Utica Lunatic Asylum (by his family). Some historians have speculated Smith was admitted to avoid his critics and investigations. Others, exposing more details of Smith’s illnesses (including a long bout of typhoid that contributed to his chronic health conditions), said Smith was genuinely distressed, having been depressed for a long time. They say it was the Harper’s Ferry incident that “broke the camel’s back.”
One source at www.wvculture.org/history/jb9.html claimed:
“Gerrit Smith shows continued marks of insanity,” a New York journal reported later that month. “No one is allowed to see him, but it is understood that he refers in his ravings to the Harper’s Ferry matter, and supposes himself arrested.”
And another source has a longer and extremely interesting report of the history. You can find that atThe “Black Dream” of Gerrit Smith, New York Abolitionist” at www.nyhistory.com/gerritsmith/dream.htm. I found the information and story there riveting. Here’s a portion:
The New York Herald dispatched a special reporter to visit Smith at Peterboro in late October to obtain more information concerning the abolitionist’s ties to Brown and the Harpers Ferry raid. The only statement the reporter could get from Smith was this remark: “I am going to be indicted, sir, indicted! You must not talk to me about it. . . . If any man in the Union is taken, it will be me.” This reporter had covered Smith’s gubernatorial campaign the previous fall and made some very interesting comments upon the changes in Smith since that time.
Concerning the controversy which followed the raid, the reporter observed:
[It] has not only impaired his health, but is likely to seriously affect his excitable and illy-balanced mind. . . . His calm, dignified, impressive bearing has given place to a hasty, nervous agitation, as though some great fear was constantly before his imagination.
The Herald reporter concluded from his visit with Smith:
He is in evident alarm and agitation, inconsistent with the idea that his complicity with the plot is simply to the extent already made public. I believe that Brown’s visit to his house last spring was immediately connected with the insurrection, and that it is the knowledge that at any moment, either by the discovery of papers or the confession of accomplices, his connection with the affair may become exposed, that keeps Mr. Smith in constant excitement and fear.
The Herald account was only one of several reports of Smith’s increasing state of agitation in late October and early November. The Rochester Daily Express reported that Smith had been “constantly wringing his hands and bemoaning the fate of poor Brown” and that the abolitionist’s friends were “apprehensive that his reason would give way under the load of grief and anxiety. . . .” The Albany Argus related that a visitor to Smith’s home shortly after the time of the raid reported that “his eye was wild and his appearance haggard, and his motion spasmodic and uncertain, but unceasingly restless”. Smith’s sleep and eating habits became increasingly erratic. He was despondent and his family feared he might attempt suicide. He even talked of going to Virginia to share John Brown’s fate. Finally, on 7 November, friends and family members were able to persuade Smith to accompany them to the state asylum at Utica by assuring him that he was on his way to Virginia.
Back to the Old Main. After years of dwindling financial support and the construction of better buildings, it was closed in 1978. The Old Main is in great disrepair now.
Some of its old wings have been demolished. You can see that there are huge gashes in the walls, allowing moisture and critters to invade.
When I attended Utica’s Genesis Group meetings years ago, there was some discussion about what should be done with the Old Main. There were some who wanted a museum of mental illness (which I didn’t think would be a very attractive draw), others wanted a Revolutionary War museum housed there, since central New York is so rich in history of that era. And others suggested that the City of Utica move its main offices there. There was talk about trying to get some rich investor to pour his billions into the place, but I don’t think anything came of that.
Part of the building was renovated a few years ago, and these rooms house the Records Archive and Repository for the NYS Office of Mental Health. But I think restoring the entire building could never be accomplished by the city (or the state) alone.
Sometimes, these beautiful old buildings are too difficult to restore, and they outgrow their usefulness; although I’m not ruling out any miracles. For now, the Old Main still stands.
Photos courtesy Roger Luther at nysasylum.com. (Thanks, Roger!)