Editor’s Note: John Lazarro is the author of book, The Walls Still Talk: A Photographic Journey Through Kings Park Psychiatric Center which documents the decades of neglect and decay of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center in Kings Park, NY as a result of deinstitutionalization. Here he shares with us his images and and the story of the Psychiatric Center on Long Island. 

Closed and abandoned since 1996, Kings Park Psychiatric Center stands as an otherworldly relic situated in Nissequogue River State Park in the hamlet of Kings Park, NY. Over the course of its 111 year history, Kings Park Psychiatric Center served as the nucleus of the surrounding community for generations. The town’s local economy depended on its very existence. Residential development rose since the hospital offered local employment opportunities. And the idea of having a mental institution was not seen as a negative connotation but rather a sense of civic pride. At the height of its operation in 1954, the hospital treated over 10,000 patients, making it the largest institution of its kind at the time.

Aerial view of Building 93Aerial view of Building 93 (geriatric infirmary), 2018

But with the advent of psychotropic drugs, the need for long-term treatment of the mentally ill had begun to phase out. Buildings on the grounds of King Park Psychiatric Center started to shut down or operate at a limited capacity. In November 1996, the last patients at Kings Park Psychiatric Center were transferred to the nearby Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center. And while the park is a convenient haven for locals, the remains of Kings Park Psychiatric Center have become a mecca for thrill seekers, urban explorers, and local historians alike.

Building 5 (central maintenance & lock shop), 2018Building 5 (central maintenance & lock shop), 2018

In the 1880s, Kings County Asylum in Flatbush, Brooklyn was sufferings from the same overcrowding and lack of funding that afflicted many hospitals at the time. At the behest of Hospital Superintendent Dr. John C. Shaw, Kings County purchased 873 acres of land in the hamlet of St. Johnland (now Kings Park) with the intention of establishing a ‘lunatic farm’ in a more environmentally suitable location, particularly one with a large tract of land where separate buildings of various sizes could be built to form a small village with homelike surroundings.

Dr. Shaw believed this change in milieu would improve their chances of recovery. With that, three small cottages were constructed to house 23 female and 32 male patients from the asylum in Flatbush. Within two years, the patient population grew to over 200. As a form of occupational therapy, patients were set to work clearing the land to start the farm that would provide food and future cottages for more patients. By the turn of the century and now under state control, the new hospital officially separated from the Kings County Lunatic Asylum and became the Kings Park State Hospital — a name it would carry until the 1970s before it was finally changed to the Kings Park Psychiatric Center. 

Typical ward, Building 136 (medical diagnostic clinic & surgical center), 2018

As the population of New York State grew, so did the patient numbers at Kings Park. Newly arriving patients were admitted before the paint had dried on the walls. Over the next 40 years, 150 buildings would be operating on the grounds to meet the expanding needs of the hospital. 1925 in particular saw the busiest year of expansion at the hospital. Following a recommendation from New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, the legislature approved $1,500,000 for the construction of a hospital for New York State veterans to be affiliated with Kings Park.

Exterior of the QuadsBuildings 41-43, “The Quad” (geriatric & ambulatory care), 2018

Typical day room, Building 22 (continued care/admissions)Typical day room, Building 22 (continued care/admissions), 2018

Construction began on the Veterans’ Memorial Hospital Unit with Building 125 serving as the administration building. Building 136 was added as a medical support building, Building 138 was for patient wards with Building 139 as a kitchen and dining hall for those wards. Separately, Buildings 40, 41 and 42 were completed for geriatric and ambulatory patients. Two wards were set aside to treat patients with schizophrenia using insulin convulsive therapy. Building 93, the largest and most recognizable building on the grounds, was built from 1939-1941 to serve as an infirmary for chronic and geriatric patients. Bedridden patients were treated on the top floors, semi-invalids on the middle floors, and able-bodied patients on the bottom floors.

Hallway of Building 90 (business offices/nursing school)Hallway of Building 90 (business offices/nursing school), 2018

When Thorazine was invented in 1955, 5% of the patient population at Kings Park started receiving psychotropic drug therapy. New York State completed the Mental Health Study Act, which called for the abolition of state hospitals and the redirecting of federal funds to build community centers for the mentally ill. Farm buildings on the grounds had phased out, as it became far cheaper to import food. Another change came in 1965 when Medicare and Medicaid were established in New York State. Both contained provisions for mental health treatment, but the care provided by state hospitals was not covered and mentally ill people under the age of 65 were ineligible for Medicaid benefits. As a result, large numbers of geriatric patients were transferred from state hospitals to nursing homes. The hospital began the slow and steady process of closing its buildings and leaving them abandoned. Building 93 in particular, began to close from the top floors down, leaving a graveyard of patient beds in the basement. 

Kings Park Psychiatric Center A Visual Journey After Deinstitutionalization_7.jpgBasement of Building 93, 2018

The proverbial nail-in-the-coffin to Kings Park Psychiatric Center came in 1993 when the New York State Community Mental Health Reinvestment Act mandated that all savings realized from the closure of unneeded state psychiatric centers would be funneled into various community mental health programs; a process widely know as deinstitutionalization. By 2000, a portion of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center was turned into Nissequogue River State Park. Since the grounds were turned over to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the land itself became legally protected from residential and commercial redevelopment. By the end of 2006, the remaining acres of the hospital land were added to the state park. The buildings, cited by the state as “inhospitable to be redeveloped,” began to atrophy.

Kings Park Psychiatric Center A Visual Journey After Deinstitutionalization_8.jpgBreezeway connecting Buildings 21/22 to Building 7, 2018

Today, less than 30 hospital buildings remain of what was once one of the largest institutions for the mentally ill in the nation. These photos show the result of 24 years of abandonment and decay. 

Kings Park Psychiatric Center A Visual Journey After Deinstitutionalization_9Building 3 (administrative staff residence), 2018

Today, some new buildings are going up. Building 40 (MRU/daycare for employees) has been demolished and a new building for the Department of Environmental Conservation is under construction. For nice walk in the publicly accessible portion of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center, start at the traffic circle at the end of Kings Park Boulevard and walk towards the river. You’ll find the Georgian style homes for physicians and staff, the old curved roads with street lamps, and various other treatment buildings.

You can purchase John Lazarro’s book The Walls Still Talk: A Photographic Journey Through Kings Park Psychiatric Center on BurningMeta.