While mental health care is now shedding its stigma as celebrities, politicians and average people speak up about their diagnoses and treatment, that wasn’t always the case. For centuries, people struggling with now-mainstream conditions like depression, bipolar disorder and developmental disabilities were often permanently relegated to bleak facilities that were little more than prisons.
Interchangeably known as lunatic asylums, psychiatric institutions and sanitariums, these facilities were chronically overpopulated, understaffed and underfunded, resulting in dirty, unsafe conditions that offered little real treatment for patients. In fact, some of the most notorious mental institutions became sites for cruel human experiments that essentially amounted to torture.
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Increases in Abandoned Asylums Throughout The US and Beyond
By the end of the 20th century, increased awareness of mental health disorders and their appropriate treatment led most of these residential facilities to be shuttered and often abandoned. While most have since been repurposed, redeveloped or razed, the remains of a few still stand ready to be explored by the curious and the daring looking for abandoned asylums.
The 15 abandoned asylums below are some of the most fascinating and haunting former facilities still in existence. If you’re in the area, check them out while you still can.
Craig House (Beacon, New York)
This vacant Victorian mansion near the upstate New York town of Beacon was built in 1859 as a residence for Union Army officer General Joseph Howland. A half-century later, the Gothic-style structure was converted into the country’s first licensed private psychiatric hospital.
Founded by Scottish doctor Clarence Slocum and his son Jonathan, Craig House provided its rich and famous clients with intensive talk therapy and other treatment. The lushly-forested 60-acre property also offered patients a variety of luxurious amenities, including a swimming pool, gym and golf course as well as art classes and gourmet meals.
However, its outcomes couldn’t quite match its grand appearance, and it was a place of great tragedy as well as great beauty. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald sent his wife Zelda there in 1934 in hopes of finding a cure for her schizophrenia, but as the months passed and her condition didn’t improve, the struggling writer was forced to move her to a less expensive hospital.
Frances Seymour, wife of Henry Fonda and mother of Jane Fonda, committed suicide there in 1942. Rosemary Kennedy, sister to President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, was sent to the facility after a disastrous lobotomy left the 23-year-old with the mental capacity of a toddler.
Craig House finally closed its doors in 1999 and was purchased several years later by hedge fund manager Robert Wilson, who met his own unfortunate end in 2013 when the 87-year-old jumped to his death from the window of his New York City apartment.
Since then, the abandoned sanitarium has sat empty and locked, surrounded by concrete bollards and “No Trespassing” signs, although it was acquired by a new owner in 2018 and may soon be on its way to restoration and redemption.
Rockhaven Sanitarium (Glendale, California)
Rockhaven Sanitarium in southern California boasts the distinction of being the first mental health facility founded by a woman: Agnes Richards, a psychiatric nurse who opened the treatment center in 1923 in an effort to offer an alternative to the grim conditions in state hospitals.
What began as a single stone building ultimately expanded to a three-acre campus known for its tranquil atmosphere and stunning scenery. Several of its patients had ties to fame, including Marilyn Monroe’s mother and actress Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch in the blockbuster film “The Wizard of Oz.”
A private corporation took ownership of Rockhaven in 2001, and it closed its doors to patients five years later. However, the site was preserved by the City of Glendale, and many of the features that made it such a peaceful retreat—including fountains, stone paths and archways, quaint cottages and lush foliage—are still visible today. Its long-term fate remains undetermined, as city leaders continue to discuss future plans for one of the most historic abandoned asylums in the United States.
Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center (Wingdale, New York)
First opened as the Harlem Valley State Hospital in 1924, this facility in a small town just west of the Connecticut border was founded “for the care and treatment of the insane.” Later rebranded the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, the hospital operated for more than 70 years and treated thousands of patients.
As it expanded, the 900-acre campus essentially became its own self-contained community, operating its own dairy farm, golf course, bowling alley, bakery and ice cream shop; at its apex, the center was home to 5,000 residents and just as many employees.
Despite its innocent small-town veneer, the hospital pioneered some questionable treatment methods over the decades, including insulin shock therapy for schizophrenia, electric shock therapy and the frontal lobotomy, which caused irreparable harm to thousands of patients.
As pharmaceutical treatments for mental illnesses became more effective and widely available, the patient populations of Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center and facilities like it began to dwindle. It closed in 1994 and sat vacant and crumbling for almost two decades, with graffiti, weeds and trash taking over the sprawling campus.
A developer began renovating the property in 2013, but the work screeched to a halt when regulatory agencies raised concerns about workers’ exposure to asbestos, lead and other toxic substances. Though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration settled with the developer in 2016, construction has yet to resume, leaving more than 80 buildings suspended in a state of partial disrepair, common among American abandoned asylums.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (Weston, West Virginia)
For more than a century, Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was a monument to the cruel and ineffective practices that once constituted mental health “treatment.” Later renamed the Weston State Hospital, the 666-acre campus features the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in North America.
Designed by famed architect Richard Andrews, the facility is laid out in the Kirkbride plan, comprised of long wings placed in a staggered formation to allow each to receive plenty of sunlight and fresh air. Though it was originally built for a maximum population of just 250 patients, its census would peak in the 1950s with almost 10 times that number housed in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
The hospital closed its doors in 1994 and is now available for a variety of guided tours geared toward visitors with interests in photography, history and the paranormal inside one of the creepiest abandoned asylums on earth.
Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane (Ovid, New York)
The doors of these once-handsome Victorian structures first opened to patients in 1869. The campus was divided into separate sections for men and women, and these populations were further segregated based on their propensity for violence. Patients were free to roam the property but weren’t permitted to leave; however, the campus did offer recreational opportunities through a bowling alley, movie theater and the operation of its own farm.
In addition to these lighthearted pursuits, patients were also subject to treatments that are now recognized as inhumane, such as ice baths, electroshock therapy and surgical interventions like lobotomies. The hospital also operated its own morgue, and an on-campus cemetery features thousands of graves marked only with numbers instead of the names of the souls interred there.
When the last patient was discharged in 1995, a few of the abandoned asylums buildings were repurposed as training centers for the state Department of Corrections, but most were left largely untouched, including the possessions left behind by patients and staff, making it one of the most popular abandoned asylums in the world.
Denbigh Insane Asylum (Denbigh, Wales)
This is one of the few abandoned asylums on our list not located in the United States. Built in the mid-19th century, Denbigh Asylum—later known as North Wales Hospital—was founded as a treatment center for Welsh-speaking patients with mental illness.
First constructed to house 200 patients, it eventually expanded to serve up to 1,500 residents at a time. Since it closed in 1995, the facility has been relentlessly attacked by vandals and looters, and plans to raze the site for a new residential development never materialized.
A fire further damaged the building in 2008, leaving it in even more haunting condition. Today, the dilapidated structure is closely guarded by private security, but if you decide to hazard a visit, be sure to wear an industrial mask and eye protection due to large amounts of asbestos on the property.
Medfield State Hospital (Medfield, Massachusetts)
From 1892 to 2003, Medfield State Hospital served thousands of patients with a wide variety of psychiatric conditions, housing them in 58 brick cottages scattered across its vast campus. While only about three dozen of them remain standing today, the property—unlike many former mental institutions—is surprisingly accessible to visitors.
The campus is open to the public during daytime hours, and visitors are welcome to roam the grounds of these abandoned asylums, but are prohibited from entering the buildings, a rule enforced by a well-staffed security team. The former hospital has also become famous for its appearances in several blockbuster films, including “Shutter Island,” “The Box” and “Knives Out.”
Creedmoor Psychiatric Center’s Building 25 (Queens Village, New York)
Located on the outskirts of Queens, Creedmoor State Hospital opened its doors in 1912 as an extension of Brooklyn State Hospital, with 32 patients sent to farm the property as a component of their treatment. The hospital’s census grew exponentially over the next several decades, peaking at 8,000 before declining during the deinstitutionalization trend of the 1950s.
In the 1970s, the center was rocked by violent crime, including 22 assaults, 52 fires, six suicides, three rapes, a shooting and a riot. Building 25 was abandoned during this period and left to decay. Though some of the buildings around it remain in use, the crumbling remains of Building 25 now contain only dirt, debris and a healthy population of pigeons (who tend to love abandoned asylums).
Fernald State School (Waltham, Massachusetts)
Founded in 1888 with the unfortunate moniker of the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, the institution was later named for its third superintendent, Walter Fernald. Unfortunately, Fernald happened to be a fervent proponent of eugenics, and his work at the facility was motivated by a deep-seated belief that “unwanted and inferior” people should be separated from the rest of society so they could not reproduce. For Fernald, this pursuit applied not only to the mentally handicapped, but also to poor or outcast but otherwise healthy individuals.
The 186-acre campus was the site of unspeakable atrocities over its 125-year history, from overcrowded and filthy living conditions to physical and sexual abuse by staff. In the 1940s and 1950s, patients were also tricked into participating in gruesome experiments that exposed them to radioactive chemicals.
The horrific conditions finally began to improve after the state sued the facility in the 1970s, and the hospital continued to operate until 2014. Since then, the only change to the campus has been the appearance of “No Trespassing” signs and security cameras meant to deter visitors looking to visit one of the most historically-nuts abandoned asylums in the US.
Forest Haven Asylum (Fort Meade, Maryland)
Located just outside the nation’s capital, the Forest Haven Asylum opened in 1925 with the mission of serving children with mental illness, physical disabilities and other challenges. For several decades, it succeeded, with patients provided the opportunity to develop functional skills via the thriving farm community on the 250-acre site.
However, when funding for the facility was drastically cut in the 1960s, qualified staff were replaced with low-wage employees and many of the recreational programs for patients were eliminated. Reports of physical and sexual abuse skyrocketed during this time, and hundreds of patients died due to neglect and other unusual causes, their bodies processed in the on-site morgue and buried in unmarked graves on campus.
The facility was finally shut down in 1991, but most of the buildings remain, albeit covered in graffiti, peeling paint and other signs of decay. A single headstone placed in the burial field is the only acknowledgement of the victims of the horrors that occurred at Forest Haven over the decades.
While the deteriorating structures are visible from a distance, explorers hoping for a closer look should keep in mind that the property is regularly patrolled by local law enforcement, working to ensure that one of the most interesting abandoned asylums in the world remains free from vandalism or arson.
Hart Island (The Bronx, New York)
Despite its cheerful-sounding name, this small island in Long Island has a long, dark history. Its first residents were Civil War prisoners, 235 of whom died in captivity. In the yellow fever epidemic of 1870, it was the site of a large hospital where many patients succumbed to their illnesses.
In the decades that followed, it hosted a lunatic asylum for women, a tuberculosis treatment center, a juvenile corrections facility and a secretive Army base during the Cold War. Today, it serves as a “potter’s field” for the state, where unidentified bodies and body parts are given some semblance of a dignified burial.
The island hosts occasional public tours but is accessible primarily to people who can show proof that a deceased family member is buried there. Hart Island was recently back in the news, being one of the locations COVID-19 deaths in New York City and beyond were buried in mass graves.
Riverview Hospital (Coquitlam, British Columbia)
For almost a century, Riverview Hospital treated psychiatric patients in America’s neighbor to the north. The most famous building on campus, West Lawn Pavilion, opened in 1913 and housed men with extreme psychosis and other severe mental illnesses. Since the facility’s closure in 2010, West Lawn Pavilion and the neighboring Crease Clinic and East Lawn buildings have become popular filming locations for edgy productions like “Saw,” “The X-Files,” “Dark Angel” and “Along Came a Spider.”
During its heyday, the property functioned as both a mental health treatment center as well as a provincial botanical garden, with more than 1,000 acres filled with lush trees and diverse wildlife including bobcats, coyotes, black bears, deer and birds.
Since the hospital’s closure, about 75 percent of the acreage has been parceled out for residential developments and regional parks, although the Riverview property’s inclusion on the Canadian Register of Historic Places should offer at least some protection from demolition and redevelopment of one of North America’s most famous abandoned asylums.
The New York City Farm Colony (Staten Island, New York)
Founded at the end of the 19th century as a self-sustaining community for the mentally ill, outcast and marginalized, the Staten Island Farm Colony’s early days were innocent enough; several thousand residents farmed the land to feed the tranquil settlement.
But with the advent of the New Deal and the development of effective psychiatric medications in the 1950s, many of its productive members left the community for new environs, leaving behind the oldest and weakest members of the community to fend for themselves. By 1975, the once-thriving colony was essentially a ghost town.
The Farm Colony soon became a magnet for nefarious activities. The bodies of several missing New York City children were discovered in shallow graves on the property, and teenagers frequented the site to drink, smoke, play paintball and vandalize the Colony’s decaying structures. Rumors of supernatural activity, ostensibly by deceased members of the Farm Colony, have also plagued the so-called “haunted” grounds.
Though a developer acquired 45 acres of the property in 2016 to build a residential housing complex, much of the former farm site remains untouched and accessible to explorers through gaps in the fence around its perimeter.
Letchworth Village (Thiells, New York)
Like similar self-sustaining communities on this list, the ill-fated Letchworth Village began with noble intentions: establish a peaceful village where people struggling with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and even physical handicaps could escape the stresses and strains of the rest of the world. The community promised “an acre for every patient” within its 2,000-acre property, and the more capable residents could staff its farms, shops and shared utilities.
Shortly after opening in 1911, the village became severely overcrowded, and most of its patients ended up being juveniles who were ill-prepared to shoulder the burden of sustaining the community. Insufficient staffing and lack of funding spiraled into physical abuse, neglect and ethically questionable medical trials, including one of the first successful tests of the polio vaccine.
Like similar institutions across the country, Letchworth Village closed in the wake of Geraldo Rivera’s notorious expose of the abominable conditions at Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. The majority of its facilities were left to decay, although a golf course and public park were later constructed on part of the property, creating a strange visual juxtaposition of crumbling buildings and manicured greens.
Athens Lunatic Asylum (Athens, Ohio)
Though it opened as a modest 500-patient facility in 1874, Athens Lunatic Asylum grew exponentially over its first several decades in operation, peaking in the 1950s with a patient population of nearly 2,000 on a 1,000-acre campus. At one point, the asylum was the largest employer in Ohio, despite the fact that much of its operational labor was done by the patients themselves—at least until psychiatric drugs became more widely available.
Residents of the asylum were subjected to a wide range of “treatments” that were essentially thinly-veiled abuse: electroshock therapy, hydrotherapy, frontal lobotomies and medications that placed them into catatonic states.
After the hospital closed in the early 1990s, Ohio University took over and renovated most of its buildings; however, the asylum’s cemetery still exists within the college campus as a grim reminder of nearly 2,000 former patients’ tragic fate.
Additional Resources Beyond Abandoned Asylums
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