Built on over 600-acres of land with over 5,000 beds, Rockland State Hospital included its own coal power plant, a farm, and industrial shops where patients worked manufacturing various things like furniture and household products. At the time, it was thought that through hard work and manual labor that one could overcome their mental illness. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that insulin shock therapy was introduced to the patients of the hospital, followed by electroshock therapy and lobotomies. Various forms of punishment were used for patients who acted out or were deemed uncontrollable, such as ice baths and seclusion rooms.
The Recreation Building housed a bowling alley and cafeteria in the basement which may have been used employees and/or patients. A two-story auditorium is located on the ground floor of the building, where basketball games were played and movies were projected onto the screen. This is another building the town has thought of preserving with the possibility of turning it into a community center.
The Children’s Building was built in the late-1930s as a grade school for both patients and the children of the employees who worked there. The town has thought about preserving this building, mostly due to some of the murals throughout the building which were hand-painted during the WPA era. Possibly due to the recent vandalism at the building which resulted in the walls covered in graffiti and a fire in one part of the building, that plan has probably been scrapped. There were six cottages on the grounds for children, three for boys and three for girls. Some of the children housed there weren’t there for having a mental illness, but for other reasons such as having a discipline problem. The building was shuttered in 1970 with services being moved to a newly renovated building located just west of the Rockland campus. That building would eventually close down as well in 2010 with services being moved once again to yet another building located on the Rockland campus.
Many of the buildings were used for inpatient housing. While some of the patients had more private rooms, others were put into community bed areas. At night, patients in these areas would fight to establish themselves as being the ‘alpha’ within the group and was only done during these hours as the patients were locked together and usually not accompanied by staff. A vast network of tunnels connected all the buildings of the hospital which were used for transporting patients and food. Water, sewerage and electric lines also ran throughout the tunnels to provide utilities to the buildings.
By its peak in 1959, Rockland State Hospital boasted more than 9000 residents and a staff of 2000 on a sprawling campus. The campus at its largest size once represented one of the largest intact psychiatric hospital facilities in the United States. By the 1970s though, the practice of deinstitutionalization was spreading throughout the nation and Rockland was no different as the overall inpatient population dramatically dropped during these years. In 1974, the hospital’s name was changed to Rockland Psychiatric Center which still operates to this day.
In 2003, the state of New York sold the unused portion of the Rockland campus to the town of Orangeburg. The town has made plans to redevelop the property which would involve the demolition of most of the buildings on the property to make way for office buildings, homes and apartments, and community parks. Instead, the property was sold to JPMorgan Chase for the construction of a data center, and demolition of most of the buildings on that parcel began in 2018.
My friend, Gary Custick, committed suicide at Rockland State Hospital. I love you, brother. Rest in peace.