The history of Camp LaGuardia begins in 1918 when New York State purchased 300 acres of land in the town of Chester, New York to build a prison for young women following a sharp spike in female criminal activity in New York City. The construction of Greycourt Women’s Prison — also known as the Farm Colony at Greycourt — took place over a five year period, playing a role in the modernization of New York City’s correctional institutions. Greycourt was New York City’s version of the State Reformatory at Bedford and eventually became the women’s branch of the city’s reformatory system and the city’s first geographically separate women’s prison. Following the Progressive movement behind the construction of prisons during that time, Greycourt, in a new approach, was modeled in the English Gothic architectural-style to avoid a generic appearance.
The work component of the rehabilitation program at Greycourt was transferred to the Department of Public Welfare in 1930. At that time, some 81 women were incarcerated at Greycourt, well under its maximum capacity of 700 inmates. With criminality among women on the wane, the depths of the Great Depression brought about homelessness and alcoholism among men. In 1934, Greycourt Women’s Prison was converted into Camp Greycourt, a work camp for homeless men by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Renamed Camp LaGuardia in 1935, the facility was imagined to be self-sustaining by providing a rehabilitative work environment thus becoming a model for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Camp LaGuardia residents would work on the grounds or find employment at the nearby resorts in the Catskills.
By the 1990s, Camp LaGuardia’s homeless population had grown to consist more of young, drug addicted and/or mentally ill males who were allowed the leeway to leave the grounds. The residents of Chester were on edge after incidents of lewdness and public urination. As part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s five-year plan to reduce homelessness in New York City and allocation of Camp LaGuardia’s $19 million budget on more long-term solutions such as subsidized housing, city officials announced the closing of the camp in November 2006.
New York City sold the Camp LaGuardia property to Orange County in 2007 for the price of $8.5 million. As of December 2020, Urban Green Builders bid $1.2 million to turn the main building into a 100-room hotel and retreat center named Hotel Fiorella which has yet to be presented to the New York Legislature.
John Lazzaro is a Long Island-based photographer specializing in New York’s vanishing architecture. His wider range of work can be viewed on his website: johnlazzarophoto.com. Fun fact: Camp LaGuardia is close to where the 2019 Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was from in Florida, New York and a Brutalist government building in Goshen.