Stones of Grey

As mentioned in the last article, I had departed nine hours north to meet with Renegade and Ink for a more than random trip. After our first successful exploration it was time to switch from industrial to medical. On today’s docket was an asylum opened on August 17, 1876, and was known as the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum. This sprawling building was designed in the classic Kirkbride style and was New Jersey’s second “Lunatic Asylum” ever constructed.  At the base of this massive building was the largest continuous foundation in the United States from the time it was built until it was surpassed by the Pentagon when it was constructed in 1943. The pure scale and design of this facility was nothing more than intimidating.

Not being as enthused about the early predawn and the mile walk through the woods and river; the early morning sun was just peaking over the horizon as we ran through the tall grass of the main lawn, under the fence, and through the entry point into the quiet corridors. The air was damp and our surroundings were crumbling. It didn’t take long for me to notice that even in the advanced decay of this derelict hospital the power was still running. Looking down a hallway that was filled with debris from the collapsing ceiling and wall and seeing the warm glow of an oddly placed exit sign was a bit unsettling.


Only 4 years after opening, the hospital that was designed to house only 600 mentally ill patients had well over 800 and was only growing by the day. As growth continued to increase, the two main dining halls were converted to third-class housing that amounted to nothing more than stacked cots and bare bones linens. Thirteen years later, in 1914, the facility had exploded to 2,412 patients. To avoid legal troubles the state changed the max capacity of the asylum from 600 to an absolute maximum capacity of 1,600. Though the paper changes did not reflect any structural changes…

Unbelievably, patient numbers peaked in 1953 with 7,674 people packed into spaces designed for significantly fewer. The culprit for this dramatic increase was the fact that World War II had ended and left many soldiers requiring treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, which included procedures such as insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy. One of the only places in the United States that could preform those procedures was none other than here. As I walked down the hallways I could only picture patients crammed within these walls, some friends, some family, some who fought for our country.

Though only closed in 2003, the amount of decay was not proportional to the amount of time the asylum was abandoned. Jeep sized holes in the roof and entirely missing walls only added to my intrigue. In the 1980’s a trend toward de-institutionalization initiated; which was a direct effect of the use of Thorazine, one of the first drugs that was capable of treating the mentally ill. By  2000, the hospital had substantially shrank to a 550-bed facility when then Governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, announced that the state was going to close the facility by 2003. The decision to close Greystone came about not only because of concerns for the aging buildings, but also due to the recent negative press it was receiving. Specifically, accounts of sexual assault in a hospital elevator, patients committing suicide, patients becoming pregnant, and a twice-convicted rapist escaping.

Being able to once again walk through a hallway that had shaped, at least local, history was an extremely fulfilling feeling. With fewer and fewer remaining, it was a great pleasure to check off another Kirkbride from my bucket list. Well worth the drive and well worth seeing friends.

I can only hope that a hospital with over 136 years of history, 128 of them being as an active institution,  will not fade into non-existence. The old saying, “If these walls could talk” haunts every fiber of this building. Sometimes it is just better to take it all in.

One Response to “Stones of Grey”

  1. Great pictures and write-up. It’s a shame something this great had to be left for dead and decaying so quickly.

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