Pilgrim Psychiatric Center
At the time it was opened, it was the largest hospital of any type in the world  - its size has never been exceeded by any other facility- although Pilgrim is today far smaller than it used to be.
By 1900, overcrowding in city asylums was becoming a major problem that many tried to resolve. One answer was to put the mentally ill to work farming in a relaxing setting on what was then rural Long Island. The new state hospitals were dubbed "Farm Colonies" because of their live-and-work treatment programs, agricultural focus and patient facilities. However, these farm colonies, the Kings Park State Hospital (later known as the Kings Park Psychiatric Center) and the Central Islip State Hospital (later known as the Central Islip Psychiatric Center), quickly became overcrowded, just like the earlier institutions they were supposed to replace.
NY state responded by making plans for a third so-called farm colony, what was to become the Pilgrim State Hospital, named in honor of the former New York State Commissioner of Mental Health, Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim. The state bought up approx. 1,000 acres of land in Brentwood and began construction in 1929. The hospital opened on October 1, 1931 as a close knit community with its own police and fire department, courts, post office, a LIRR station, power plant, potter's field, swinery, cemetery, water tower and houses for doctors, psychiatrists, and asylum administrators. A series of underground tunnels were used for routing steam pipes and other vital utilities.
The hospital would continue to grow as the patient population increased. Eventually, the state of New York bought up more land to the southwest of the facility to construct Edgewood State Hospital, a short-lived stand-alone facility that operated under Pilgrim's umbrella. In fact, Pilgrim State was so large that it reached into four Suffolk townships- Huntington, Babylon, Smithtown and Islip- and had two major state roads passing through its bounds.
During World War II, the War Department took over control of the entire Edgewood facility along with three new buildings at Pilgrim, buildings 81, 82, and 83 (visible from the Long Island Expressway and still used today). The War Department constructed numerous temporary structures and operated Edgewood and buildings 81-83 as "Mason General Hospital," a psychiatric hospital devoted to treating battle-traumatized soldiers. Famed filmmaker John Huston, who received a special commission in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, made a documentary at Mason called "Let There Be Light" that showed the effects of war on mental health. The film sparked a firestorm of controversy and was not seen by the public until 1981.
After the war, Pilgrim experienced a surge in patient numbers that made it the world's largest hospital, topping out at 13,875 patients and over 4,000 employees in 1954. Around this time, the old "rest and relaxation" philosophy gave way to more extreme measures like pre-frontal lobotomies and electro-shock therapy. However, Pilgrim and the other state hospitals began to decline shortly afterwards with the arrival of pharmaceutical alternatives to institutionalization.
Death of the "Farm Colonies"
As medicine and community care became a viable alternative to institutionalization, large mental institutions began to decline. Edgewood, the last completed Long Island asylum, closed its doors in December 1971 following decentralization. Kings Park and Central Islip continued operation, while at the same time downsizing. Pilgrim was not exempt from this downsizing either, and parts of the campus began to close throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. Buildings 81-83 were briefly used as a correctional facility in the 1980s as a result of Pilgrim's mass downsizing, but after much community protest they reverted back to psychiatric use. In the early 1990s, with declining patient populations in the three remaining hospitals, the New York State Office of Mental Health (formerly the Department of Mental Hygiene) began making plans to re-organize the Long Island hospitals. The plans were implemented in the fall of 1996, when Kings Park and Central Islip were formally shuttered, and the remaining patients from both those facilities were transferred to Pilgrim. The Central Islip site partly became a campus for the New York Institute of Technology, but was also used for residential and commercial development or left abandoned. At Kings Park, three buildings housing community residences administered by Pilgrim remain open. Much of the former campus has become a state park, while the rest sits in abandonment.
Pilgrim is today the last of the state asylums still operating on Long Island. However, it is no longer what it used to be. The farming section of the hospital was sold off, renovated, and became the Western Campus of the Suffolk County Community College in 1974. A large part of the Pilgrim campus was sold to a developer, and numerous abandoned structures on those lands were demolished in recent years. However, rebuilding has not begun. Other abandoned structures, like the former administration building, medical/surgical building, doctor's residences and utilities section remain standing for the time being (those parts of the campus are owned by the developer as well). Only about a third of the original Pilgrim campus is still in operation, though its future is also cloudy.
Pilgrim also hosts a museum on site, which displays items from Kings Park, Central Islip, Pilgrim, and Edgewood such as pictures, old newsletters, relics from abandoned and/or demolished buildings, and other historical information that hint back to a largely forgotten era.
- Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Official Website
- Long Island Oddities Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center Page
- Pilgrim State Asylum Photo Journal
- Abandoned Photography, Pilgrim State
- Psychiatric hospitals close in New York State NY Times
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