pilgrimfrontLocation: West Brentwood, NY

Status: Partially abandoned

I hadn’t originally planned to visit the site of what was once the world’s largest mental institution immediately since I didn’t have much information about it, let alone even know its location, but on a return trip to Kings Park Psychiatric Center, opportunity came knocking. That was one door I was sure glad I answered!

Named for Charles W. Pilgrim, the comissioner of mental health in the 1900′s, Pilgrim State Hospital first opened on October 1, 1931 and was fashioned after the self-sufficient communities of Kings Park and Central Islip on Long Island. About 100 patients from Central Islip were transferred there, and by 1935, 9000 patients already lived there. By 1954, over 13,000 patients lived in the facilities. When Kings Park closed in 1996, many of its patients were transferred to Pilgrim, which would have 75 structures on its campus by 1999. Around this time, many of these structures stopped being used, started falling to ruins, and to this day are slowly being demolished. As one walks through the grounds of this complex, rubble can be seen along the deteriorating roadsides amongst some buildings that are still in use.

Aside from this, Pilgrim also has another somewhat well-known history and tragically, it’s one that has been described as having “nightmarish” violations of human rights. Stories of mistreatment of patients, forced electro shock therapy, lobotomies, and other scandals have originated here, allegedly worse than the ones that surround other institutions of this caliber. While doing research on the internet about these scandals, I discovered by reading articles that a few did indeed happen. In 1987, twenty workers were fired and/or suspended for patient abuse and drug and alcohol use. Then in 1996, an article in the New York Times deemed the treatment of patients at Pilgrim “unconstitutional”. It was only in 2000 that Newsday exposed the institution for all of the investigations of deaths that occurred there. Now that I’ve learned these things, part of me is a bit glad that I did this disturbing research AFTER exploring Pilgrim!

pilgrimfront2Many of the rooms inside of Pilgrim were empty with the exception of a few leftover bed frames, dressers, medical equipment, and rubble. It’s apparent that these buildings could very well be knocked down soon by the piles of crumbled cinderblock and asbestos in the rooms and hallways. There are also gaping holes in the walls and pipes exposed, which makes me believe even more that Pilgrim is being prepared for demolition. This belief isn’t too farfetched, considering that about twenty buildings have already met the wrecking ball.

As with every abandoned asylum we investigate, we weren’t leaving until we saw the morgue. And I must say, Pilgrim’s morgue was no disappointment. It had sixteen body freezers from floor to ceiling, complete with the table on which the autopsies were performed. Above this table on the wall, the quote, “Let conversations cease. Let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living.” was painted. We couldn’t determine what the entire quote was at the time since part of the wall it was painted on was knocked out, but a quick search on the internet told me that it was a motto posted on the wall of the autopsy room of Dr. Milton Helpern, the medical examiner of New York City in the 1960′s.

As we were about to leave the autopsy room, we looked behind the door and discovered the hook that was used to pull the body trays out from the freezers hanging on the wall. I was surprised that no one had moved it during the entire time that Pilgrim was closed. Of course, we left it where we found it in hopes that others who discover it will let it be as well.

The last point of interest in the buildings of Pilgrim was the pharmacy, which had a big steel door that closed over another door with a small window in it where the patients would be served their medications. It was the first of its kind that I have seen thus far.

pilgrimfront3The sun was starting to set in a darkening pink and orange sky, and a small distance away from the hospital buildings of Pilgrim a beautiful monumental gothic style tower stood forbodingly against it. I was immediately drawn to this gorgeous piece of architecture and just HAD to investigate it further.

Our tour guide told us that the beautiful gothic tower with the almost cathedral-like windows once served as a water tower. I was puzzled as to why a water tower would need windows, but I figured maybe they were there just to make the tower more asthetically pleasing to the eye, which the tower certainly was. The door was wide open, a welcoming invitation to us explorers to take a peek inside. Once I stepped in through the open doorway, I instinctively looked up to behold what almost resembled a starry night. Since the tower is so tall and the only light coming in was through the little windows, the very top was difficult to see from the inside. The floor had a sort of a platform that reminded me of a Pagan “circle” and it definitely had a very sacred feel to it. The tower, I would say, was indeed the highlight of the Pilgrim trip.

Before the sun disappeared completely on us, we made our way to the old forgotten patient cemetery. When we found it, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we discovered something unsettling…

Take a walk with me down to the cemetery…

- Ange, 2004


pilgrimin20Pilgrim 2003
Race against the sunset.