The experience changed my life. Over the course of eleven weeks, I researched and wrote an eighty-page report and decided that I really didn't want to write a dissertation that examined the role of male activists in the British women's suffrage movement. I wanted instead to examine the working lives and work culture of the men and women who staffed the wards of the mammoth, custodially oriented institutions that dominated the provision of mental health care from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries -- a topic that brought together the history of labor, medicine, gender relations, and public policy in all manner of interesting ways. At the same time, I also started thinking that, dissertation or not, I would be much happier working in an archives than in an academic institution.
For a variety of reasons, I left graduate school a few years after I became an archivist. However, my interest in the history of mental health care remains very much intact. Since my research focused specifically on New York State, my interest has an architectural dimension: five psychiatric facilities in the United States have been designated National Historic Landmarks, and four of them are located in the Empire State. Whenever I get the chance to visit one of these landmarks, I do so.
Yesterday, I was in the Binghamton, New York area to attend an Appraisal of Electronic Records workshop offered by the Society of American Archivists -- which I highly recommend. After the workshop ended, I headed to the eastern edge of the city of Binghamton to visit the campus of what is now the Greater Binghamton Health Center to photograph the structure that housed the New York State Inebriate Asylum, the first facility in the United States that treated alcoholism as a disease.
|N.Y. Binghamton State Hospital, 1890-1910?. Series A3045, New York State Education Department, Division of Visual Instruction, Instructional Lantern Slides, [ca. 1856-1939], bulk 1911-1939, NYSA_A3045-78_D47_BiH, New York State Archives, Albany, N.Y.|
. . . but, oh, how one wishes that the turrets had survived.
The inebriate asylum's treatment methods were unsuccessful, and in 1879 Governor Lucious Robinson asserted that the state's approach to the treatment of alcoholism was a failure. The inebriate asylum became the Binghamton Asylum for the Chronic Insane -- a custodial facility meant to house people who did not respond to the therapeutically-oriented care offered at the state's facility in Utica. Given that Issac Perry, who oversaw the retrofitting of the facility, had based his original design for the inebriate asylum upon the "Kirkbride model" of insane asylum construction, which emphasized the role of formally symmetrical architecture in restoring order to disordered minds, I suspect that the transition from "inebriate asylum" to "insane asylum" was a rather easy one.
A.D. Wheeler, who received permission to enter the structure and photograph its interior, discovered that some of its intricately detailed woodwork, light fixtures, and stained glass has survived.
Utica) on its annual list of the nation's most endangered historic sites.
The State of New York still owns this building and the land on which it stands. Binghamton has fallen on hard times, and there's no shortage of available property in the area. A couple of years ago, it even seemed that the building would be given new life: a determined area legislator and the president of the SUNY Upstate Medical University, which is based in Syracuse but was looking to expand in Binghamton, announced that the Inebriate Asylum building would be completely renovated and turned into a medical education center. Unfortunately, scandal led the president of SUNY Upstate to tender his resignation last November, and its seems that SUNY Upstate's plans for the Inebriate Asylum building have been put on hold. In the meantime, the building quietly continues decaying.