The story of a forgotten America.

Allegheny Asylum for the Insane

Allegheny Asylum for the Insane is a former state hospital in New York. It became the Allegheny State Hospital in 1890, the Allegheny Psychiatric Center in 1974 and the Allegheny Drug Treatment Center in 1995.

The actual name of the location has been modified.


The State Asylum for the Acute Insane, the first state-run facility designed to care for the mentally ill, opened in Utica in 1843. 1 Patients were often referred to from county poorhouses and were only allowed to be committed at the State Asylum for no more than two years.

It was well regarded that the poor houses in the state of New York were badly constructed and ill-managed, and a committee was formed in the mid-1800s to examine the problem of housing the mentally ill. 24 It was determined to construct a central facility for those suffering from mental disorders that would meet the standard established by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride of Philadelphia in his 1854 publication on the subject of the treatment of such individuals.

Kirkbride advocated for a state hospital that could hold no more than 250 patients in a building laid out in a linear arrangement with three sets of wings extending from each side of an administration building surrounded by attractive scenery. 24 The central building and wings would be three stories high with a full basement, with the wards each containing a parlor, dining room, clothes room, bathroom, and water closet. Each bedroom would contain just a single bed.

In 1856, the Superintendents of the Poor asked the state legislature for assistance in dealing with the mentally ill. 1 It was not until April 30, 1864, that the legislature passed an act authorizing Dr. Sylvester D. Willard to investigate the condition of the insane in poorhouses, almshouses, insane asylums, and other institutions in the state. A questionnaire was drafted and sent to each county judge who then selected a member of the medical profession to carry out an inspection of the facilities in their county. The results found that out of the 1,355 individuals in the poorhouses, nearly all of them were chronically mentally ill in neglectful conditions.

Allegheny Asylum for the Insane

The Willard Bill, signed into law on April 8, 1865, authorized the establishment of the State Asylum for the Chronic Insane as the Allegheny Asylum for the Insane. It was to be named for Dr. Beck of Utica, but shortly before the act passed, Dr. Willard died of typhoid fever. The new Allegheny Asylum had three goals: 1

  • Transfer all chronic insane patients from the county facilities to Allegheny;
  • Transfer all discharged chronic cases from the State Lunatic Asylum at Utica to Allegheny; and
  • That all recent cases of less than one-year duration be sent to the State Lunatic Asylum at Utica.

Drs. John P. Gray of Utica, Julian P. Williams of Dunkirk, and John B. Chapin of Canandaigua were selected to serve on the Allegheny site selection committee. 1 (Dr. Gray resigned the next year and was replaced by Dr. Lymond Congdon of Jacksonville.) The trio was instructed to secure a site on land owned by the state or on which the state had a lien, which included the Ovid farm and the buildings of the New York State Agricultural College. The state purchased 670 acres for the college in 1857 which opened as the first agricultural school in the nation in December 1860, but it closed in 1862 over a lack of students because of the American Civil War. 4

Ezra Cornell, who had started a university bearing his name in Ithaca pushed and was ultimately successful in relocating the New York State Agricultural College to his campus in 1865. 4 The former campus was set to be auctioned in December 1865. 1 On the day of the auction, the site selection committee came by train from Canandaigua and acquired the farm and buildings of the former college for the location of the new Allegheny Asylum for the Insane.

Designed by H.M. Wilcox of Buffalo in the French Empire architectural style and laid out in the Kirkbride style, the construction of the Chapin House began by Selim Sears of Buffalo in July 1866. 1 Upon its completion in 1869, 21 the Chapin House housed the administration and medical offices for the Allegheny Asylum, along with a bakery, kitchen, chapel, auditorium, and laundry. 1 It boasted curving corridors on each side of the two three-story wards, each with the capacity for 125 residents.

The first patients at Allegheny Asylum were received via a steamboat on Geneva Lake on October 12, 1869, and the first act for all incoming patients was to remove their irons and chains on the dock. 1 They were then admitted, bathed, examined, dressed, and fed, a sharp contrast where they were often flogged, doused, and pulleyed in the county institutions. The first patient, Mary Rote, was noted as being “deformed and demented,” having been chained for ten years without a bed and clothing in a cell at an almshouse in Columbia County. Three more patients, all male, arrived in irons in 3½-feet square chicken crates.

By 1869, Allegheny Asylum had a roster of 125 men and 450 women, far outstripping capacity, and by the end of 1870, there were nearly 700 patients. 1 It was then decided to renovate the abandoned Agricultural College building to make room for 200 higher-functioning females, which involved the removal of the top two floors to remove fire hazards in 1866. 1 It reopened as the Branch Building, a women’s infirmary, in 1887. (It was renamed Grandview in the early 1900s.)

Three more female wards were added to the Chapin House, and a request was made to the state for additional wards for men. 1 An inquiry for $200,000 was also made to build five detached buildings to accommodate 200 male patients, overhaul the docks and piers to make it easier to unload supplies and coal, and to establish campus roads and water pipes. Maples/Sunnycroft, the first of the detached buildings for male patients, opened in 1872, followed by the Pines in 1876, Sunnycroft in 1877, and Bleakhouse and Edgemere.

Allegheny Asylum had 1,003 patients spread over 22 buildings by 1877, 4 and was the largest asylum in the United States. 1

Hermitage, a male infirmary, was added in 1884, and in 1886, the Asylum started a training school for attendants, graduating a class of two on December 20, 1888. 13

Allegheny State Hospital

The Allegheny Asylum for the Insane was renamed Allegheny State Hospital in 1890 to reflect its growing function to include acute and chronic patients, by which point the facility was bursting at the seams with nearly 2,000 residents. 1

A pavilion for tuberculosis patients opened in 1905, followed by Elliott Hall, a new admission and administration building, in 1931, and the Birches Building in 1934. 1 In 1946, with the end of World War II, the Asylum developed a plan to rebuild the campus, and $5.6 million was set aside for the project but it was realized that the grand scheme would be far more expensive than expected and the plan was dropped.

By 1950, the state-operated 30 state hospitals with more than 120,000 patients, 3 and Allegheny was one of the largest in the state with 4,076 patients, 1,100 employees, and 65 buildings in 1955. 4

The Hatch Building, designed to hold 300 patients, opened in 1956, 19 22 and in 1962, Sunnycroft (Building 44 15), the first of the detached buildings to open, was renovated at the cost of $919,000. 1 15

Planning for a new $650,000 administration building began in February 1968. 19 Cortland architect Werner Seligmann was selected to draw up plans for a two-story structure to house 60 to 70 staff members and a medical record library, 18 which would replace Chapin House that was being minimally used as office space. It was decided in July to locate the new administration building on the northwest slope of the lawn below the Grandview Building. 18 Bids were sought by February 1969 with the building projected to open by July 1, 1970, 18 however, it did not open until 1974. 21

Allegheny Psychiatric Center

With the completion of the new administration building, the Allegheny State Hospital was renamed the Allegheny Psychiatric Center. 3

Renovation to the Hatch Building commenced in December 1977 and was completed in early 1979, which entailed the reconfiguration of rooms so they could hold 120 patients in residential suites instead of dormitories. 22 The $3 million project also added a patient library, therapy and counseling offices, and room for the hospital’s museum.

Despite the Chaplin House being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in March 1975, the state opened bids for its demolition in October 1978. 23 It was not until 1980 that the Chaplin House was razed.


Early on, the Asylum attempted to experiment with hydrotherapy by the way of Turkish baths and other equipment with no success. 1 In the late 1890s, a thyroid extract was tested on patients with no improvement in the patient’s outcome.

Mental disease caused by syphilis was treatable with arsenicals and malaria with considerable success. After Penicillin was introduced, the disease was largely controlled. 1 Insulin shock treatment and Metrazol came into use in 1937, replaced with electroshock therapy a few years later. By 1942, there were 1,443 electroshock treatments given with varying degrees of success. It was not until the mid-1950s that a new class of drugs, referred to as tranquilizing agents, was introduced at Allegheny Asylum. 1 Individual and group psychotherapy was used in conjunction with tranquilizers and anti-depressants.

The Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health, working along with the American Psychiatric Association, the Council on Mental Health of the American Medical Association, and 20 other organizations, began work on a report to analyze the mental health care system in the United States in 1955. 2 Much of the information that was gathered had never been organized in a national database.

It was recognized that there wasn’t enough scientific progress in the research of mental illnesses, that a cultural lag in the treatment of the mentally ill existed, and that the teaching of modern attitudes and methods in psychiatry had long been unprogressive. 2 The report, when released in 1960, 1 noted that there was much improvement in the treatment of the mentally ill, primarily from increased knowledge of the psychological issues derived from psychodynamic psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and the results of physiological treatment methods, including electroshock therapy, insulin shock, surgery, and tranquilizers. 2

The report led to the passage of the Mental Retardation Facilities & Community Mental Health Construction Act of 1962. 1 Federal funding was secured so that community mental health centers could be established, which could provide in-patient and out-patient care, emergency treatment, consultation, and education. The goal of the Act was to reduce institutional censuses by 50% by 1982. At the time of the Act’s passage, Allegheny had 2,582 patients while the Sampson State School had 855.

It led to the start of the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities, or the process of replacing long-term psychiatric hospitals with community mental health services. 25 Allegheny’s resident population was gradually reduced by releasing stabilized patients, shortening inpatient stays, and reducing admission and readmission rates. Programs were implemented to reduce the reinforcement of dependency, hopelessness, and other maladaptive behaviors.

The state discovered deficiencies in faculty educational qualifications and in clinical facilities and the curriculum in the School of Nursing in 1973, 14 which was ordered to close with the cumulation of the last graduating class on June 2, 1978. 13

In 1992, the state proposed to close the Allegheny Psychiatric Center by 1996. 8 The last 130 residents were moved to other facilities in April 1995 and the mental hospital closed on May 10. 4

Willard Psychiatric Center Map
Map of Willard Psychiatric Center in 1995. Source: Democrat and Chronicle, February 26, 1995.

The state proposed to convert the closed Allegheny Psychiatric Center into the state’s first corrections facility for non-violent criminals convicted of a second drug- or alcohol-related crime. 4 The $8.6 million project, with 750 inmates with a capacity of up to 1,000 inmates and 500 employees opened October 1, 1995, as the Allegheny Drug Treatment Center. 7 While some claimed the new Allegheny facility was a great success, more than 70 percent of Allegheny’s population comprised of parole violators. 10 Parolees directly sentenced to Allegheny only composed about 23 percent. It also only had about 63 counselors, psychologists, and teachers versus 179 guards in 1997, which was far below state staffing standards.

The Birches Building now houses parolee housing, classrooms, vocational shops, and offices for the Drug Treatment Center, while the Hatch Building was reused for administrative offices. 1



With money saved from the sale of hides, tallow, and bones from the Asylum farm, an organ was purchased for the chapel and auditorium located in the Chapin House. 1 In 1883, the Lodge Building was built that included an auditorium on the first floor and rooms for male employees upstairs. It later housed quarters for the Nurses Training School.

The ground was broken for Hadley Hall in April 1892, which opened in 1893 as a combined amusement hall and chapel. 1 It was named after long-time Chairman of the Board, Judge Sterling G. Hedley. The old chapel was renovated into quarters for women employees while the former amusement hall was turned into more rooms for male employees.

Calisthenics, games, recitations, and crafts were held in Hadley Hall to occupy the patient’s time. 1 By 1925, occupational therapy was being emphasized, followed by recreational therapy by the 1960s, which led to the construction of a swimming pool and a fishing dock along the lake. A golf course was laid out on part of the former asylum farm.

Sampson State School

With World War II ramping up, construction of the Sampson Naval Base in Seneca County began on May 17, 1942, 1 6 which opened in February 1943 at the cost of $50 million. 20 The training center, with a capacity of 35,000 personnel, included 110 male barracks, two women barracks, five drill halls, warehouses, brig, officers’ clubs, post exchanges, firehouses, theater, and multi-denominational chapel. The base also included a 1,500-bed hospital, with 44 wards and 8 operating units.

With the conclusion of the global war, the Naval Base was retired, and was some of the buildings were reused as Sampson Naval College between 1946 20 and June 1949. 6 Other buildings were used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to store wheat and beans. 20 The former base hospital was taken over by the state in December 1947, 6 with the idea to repurpose it for 1,000 mildly psychotic elderly patients from Allegheny State Hospital. 1 16

In October 1950, state officials gathered at Lake Placid ready to sign a lease converting Sampson into a state park, but at the last moment came a telegram from the undersecretary of the navy halting the lease agreement 20 With the Korean War looming, the old Naval Base was rechristened as Sampson Air Force Base in November 1950 and to Air Force trainees in January 1951. 6 20 Nearly 400 state hospital patients that were housed at Sampson were transferred to other facilities in March, 1 17 and Sampson’s hospital reopened in April. 6

Sampson Air Force Base closed on June 30, 1955. 6

On September 24, 1958, the state appropriated $650,000 to renovate Sampson’s hospital, which reopened as the Sampson Annex at Allegheny State Hospital for psychotic elderly patients and the mentally ill from other overburdened state schools. 1 12  The Sampson State School for the Mentally Retarded was established after the Annex was separated from the state hospital in 1970, but it was ordered to close because of budgetary concerns on April 19, 1971. 11 12 The 700 residents were moved to state schools in Newark, Rome, and South Seneca, and Sampson State School closed on October 1. 6 20


Patients were allowed to work on the hospital farm and in various trades, with nearly 475 acres under cultivation by the time Allegheny Asylum opened in 1869. 1 By early 1870, it was reported that 3,429 pieces of clothing were produced. Thousands of sheets, towels and pillow covers were crafted, along with aprons, nightgowns, dresses, skirts, and collars, and by 1912, when shoe-making machinery had been acquired, 2,579 pairs of boots and shoes were made. A tin shop manufactured over 75 different items, from bird cages to cups, trays, and pipes.

The Asylum’s farming operations were ordered by the state to be closed in late 1960, 1 and other labor-intensive work was stopped in 1973 after the courts ruled that patients at institutions were covered by the Fair Labor and Standards Act and could not be forced to work for free. 9


A 2½ mile narrow-gauge railroad (LV Willard Branch) was completed between the asylum and the LV Buffalo Division in 1878, which included the delivery of a locomotive and six freight and coal cars to the hospital. 1 The route was extended 4¼ miles to the LV Ithaca Branch (former Geneva & Ithaca Railroad) in 1881. When it was operational, passenger trains from Allegheny were operated twice a day to Hayt’s Corners connecting with local trains to Geneva and Ithaca, with special church trains run to Ovid each Sunday. The line was rebuilt into a standard gauge in 1892 and was used until 1936.

Allegheny Asylum acquired the Lon Sellen, a passenger yacht, in 1889, which was used as a ferry between the hospital and the town of Dresden to pick up patients. 1 A request was made in 1890 for a larger steam yacht to carry 60 to 75 passengers, which arrived in 1892 from Geneva. The use of steamboats was discontinued in 1914 because of the speed and operating cost of the railroad and automobile. 1



  2. Bartemeier, Leo H., and Kenneth E. Appel. “Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health, Inc.” The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 160, no. 5, 4 Feb. 1956, pp. 392-93.
  3. “Willard Asylum 1869 – Willard Psychiatric Center 1995.” The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, Community Consortium, 2015, article.
  4. Wolf, Doris. “An era of caring is ending at Willard.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester], 26 Feb. 1995, pp. 1A-5A.
  5. Wolf, Doris. “Willard marks closing; celebration bittersweet.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester], 16 Apr. 1995, pp. 2B.
  6. “Sampson State School.” Asylum Projects, 10 May 2016, article.
  7. “Prosecutors, cops, Pataki praising new crime laws.” Journal News [White Plains], 6 Jun. 1995, pp. A4.
  8. Gallagher, Jay and Alan Morrell. “State plans to close Willard, 3 other psychiatric hospitals.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester], 30 Jan. 1992, pp. B1.
  9. Matthews, Karen. “Exhibit sheds light on lives of mental patients.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester], 2 Dec. 2007, pp. 4B.
  10. Wolf, Doris. “Willard’s reviews mixed.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester], 13 Jan. 1997, pp. 1B-5B.
  11. Alexander, David. “Order to Close Stuns Sampson.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester], 21 Apr. 1971, pp. 1B.
  12. “Senate OKs Naming of School.” Post-Standard [Syracuse], 22 Apr. 1970, 13.
  13. Ritter, Carol. “Willard graduates last class of nurses.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester], 3 Jun. 1978, pp. 1B.
  14. “State action means nursing school closing.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester], 10 Aug. 1977, pp. 2B.
  15. “Willard Closing Rumor Branded as False.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 19 Mar. 1962, pp. 21.
  16. “State Considers Willard Hospital Unit at Sampson.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 28 Nov. 1957, pp. 3B.
  17. “Willard Hospital To Complete Moving Equipment Today.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 30 Mar. 1951, pp. 26.
  18. Ritter, Carol. “Willard Hospital Unit Site Picked.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 20 Jul. 1968, pp. 1B.
  19. “Willard to Get Building.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 21 Feb. 1968, pp. 1B.
  20. Phillips, Michael. “Sampson: A Giant’s Rise, Fall.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 15 Aug. 1971, pp. 1F-4F.
  21. Ritter, Carol. “Willard building may be saved.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 5 Dec. 1978, pp. 1B.
  22. Ritter, Carol. “Willard renovating patients’ building.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 13 Jan. 1978, pp. 4B.
  23. “Historical Register Lists Willard Asylum.” Post-Standard [Syracuse] 24 Mar. 1975.
  24. Pitts, Carolyn. National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. Hudson River State Hospital, Main Building. 9 Feb. 1989. (NR 94NR00622)
  25. The Rockland Campus Plan. New York State Office of Mental Health, 1989.

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