“Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints...”
At the centre of a sprawling one square mile site is a vast and imposing building. Founded in 1875 and popularly known as Greystone Park, the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane makes for a striking sight. Built to the Kirkbride Plan, the austere architecture was once alive with the throng of workers and inmates. It was a ‘self-contained city’ with dozens of buildings, including a fire station, post office, police station, a farm, and myriad other clerical and recreational constructions. Now, the corridors echo only with birdsong and the eerie whistle of the wind.
Thomas Story Kirkbride believed that the ‘building was the cure’ to mental illness and planned his structures accordingly, with staggered wings that allowed in as much sunlight and fresh air as possible and set them within large grounds – idealistic sanctuaries “away from the pollutants and hectic energy of urban centers”.
Kirkbride’s philosophy was – thanks in part to the reformer Dorothy Dix’s efforts – widely embraced, and many asylums were constructed to his designs.
A Grey Day in Greystone
However, by the early 1900s new drug and psychoanalytical treatments emerged and these, coupled with the lack of funds, led many of the Kirkbride asylums to be closed, demolished or absorbed into new institutions. Greystone was no exception.
The striking photographs accompanying this article were taken by Sylvain Margaine, an avid proponent of the Urban Exploration (UrbEx) scene and owner of Forbidden-places.net, where he showcases his clandestine adventures.
The Recreation Room
Simultaneously ruined and beautiful, an architectural contradiction, Greystone’s corroded utilitarian splendour is captured by Sylvain’s thought-provoking and high-quality photography.
The Seclusion Room Corridor
It is buildings like Greystone Park – neglected and decaying – that members of the Urban Exploration scene crave. Sylvain describes the UrbEx scene:
“Urban exploration is the research, documentation, escape, exploration, and mapping of these forbidden spaces that include maintenance or service areas, utility tunnels, abandoned buildings, such as mental institutions, and basically any place where the everyday public are not supposed to be.
Snow in the Basement
Sylvain says about urban exploration: "Open a door, cross a fence, or sneak into a hole and you visit the world of Urban Exploration. You have left the normal world, you are exploring.”
Amazing places exist alongside (and sometimes underneath) the polished glass and steel of the everyday city, and explorers seek to find and photograph these forgotten gems. But, while there are fascinating spaces to discover, derelict buildings are often extremely hazardous landscapes.
Peeling Paint and Rusted Metal
Besides the ever-present threat of collapsing floors and unstable ceilings, there are also hidden chemical dangers such as asbestos and Pigeon Lung – a respiratory complaint contracted through the inhalation of dessicated bird faeces. Squatters, the homeless, drug users and other less than savoury characters can also find their way into seemingly abandoned buildings leading to further dangers from discarded syringes. In more rural areas wild animals can pose an even greater threat.
Thankfully, Greystone Park provided no such hazards to Sylvain:
“It was a cold but sunny day in Morristown. We didn’t want to leave our footprints in the freshly fallen snow alerting all that urban explorers were around. After a bit of searching we found a difficult and sneaky way into the building via the violent patient ward. There were SO many abandoned items inside!"
Violent Patients: Bolted Bed, Caged Light
“The seclusion rooms with beds bolted to the floor, caged lamps, radiators, a cold-shower with its beautiful marble panels still intact, and many antique medical instruments…
“Everything has been untouched and rotting since the 1970-80s, which was the beginning of the de-institutionalization of this state hospital.”
It is not only the adventurous that have found beauty within Greystone’s decaying walls. Preserve Greystone is a group of New Jersey residents that have banded together to safeguard the building and prevent the block sale of the land, insisting that: “It is a treasure of New Jersey history and is widely acknowledged to be eligible as a national landmark.”
Senator Codey agrees, saying: “The original Greystone Psychiatric Hospital is a facility steeped in history, and we owe it to the public to preserve that history for future generations. The main building at Greystone was built during the infancy of mental health treatment in this country, and has seen both the highs and lows of mental health care throughout its 130 years of history.”
The Shower, Remotely Controlled
With Senator Codey’s help, a bill has been passed by the Senate this week which aims to establish an 11-member task force with the responsibility of developing a plan to ensure preservation of the original Kirkbride buildings.
Despite urban explorers sometimes coming into contact with police, they share a sentiment with groups that wish to preserve these hidden jewels in our social and architectural histories.
Sylvain: “So, why such a hobby? We think that abandoned and futureless places are part of our cultural heritage.”