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Magic Mountain 

"We no longer have 'magic mountains,'" says Dr. Roger Christenfeld, seated on a couch in his modest office at Hudson River Psychiatric Center.  As the Center's Director of Research, Christenfeld has studied its history over the course of 10 years.  Perched on a rise where breathtaking river views foreground the Shawangunk Range, the 133 year-old institution in its Victorian heyday did partly resemble Thomas Mann's fictive International Sanatorium Berghof, a tubercular community cloistered in the Swiss Alps before the Great War that was run like a cosmopolitan resort in his novel Magic Mountain.

"The Victorian ideal was to make patients as comfortable as possible because it was a one-way ticket; they lived here and lost contact with the outside world," says Christenfeld.  "Our goal now is to return people to some semblance of normal community life as quickly as possible, and we've learned to determine how to predict and prevent the need for restraint."  Memorabilia now on display at the Hudson River Psychiatric History Museum, dedicated on May 19, 2004, illustrates the Poughkeepsie facility's evolution from cloistered "asylum" to "State Hospital for the Insane" to mental healthcare unit.

"The artifacts tell an interesting story about how public psychiatry has changed," says Christenfeld.  One of the few repositories of its kind in the United States, it encapsulates a rich history spanning three centuries.

Founded during the mid-nineteenth century - when reformers sought to separate the mentally ill from criminals and paupers - and spearheaded by Dorothea Dix, the hospital at one time served 38 counties, including New York City.  It was constructed on land acquired piecemeal by Dutchess County, including the former Hope Farm that was sold by James Roosevelt (father of Franklin Delano).  The location was selected in 1867 by a governor's commission, who distinguished it for "geographic centrality" coupled with "commanding beauty" - a formula for "salubriousness."  The grounds, which once spread over 900 acres, were designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Until three years ago, patients were housed in a great Gothic complex of buildings, presently known as the Main Building, North Wing, and South Wing.  Designed in 1868 by Vaux, Withers, and Company, a leading architectural firm of the period, the three-part structure held a central administration office flanked by two extensive wings, each broken into male and female wards with no sightlines between them.  The population peaked in 1950 with 6,000 patients.  With the advent of biomedical treatment and a civil liberties era-inspired sense of humanity - based in the belief that patients not remain separated from communities - occupancy trends reversed, as did the need for so much residential space.  Added to the National Landmarks Registry in 1989 (and currently slated for mixed-use redevelopment), the Gothic behemoth today still towers over Route 9W across from Marist College.

Coed inpatient quarters were reestablished in 2001 on another part of the Psychiatric Center campus in the newly remodeled Ross Pavilion (opened in 1954 to house psychiatric patients with tuberculosis), also the site of Christenfeld's office.  "Visitors are surprised when they see this facility - a kind of combination of an ordinary hospital and a budget motel," the Research Director says.  Today inpatient occupancy stands at 130 with an average per-person stay of 70 days.  "Our patients are engaged hours a day in activities and psychotherapy and take appropriate medication.  When the museum opened we had a tour for our inpatients, who agreed it's a good thing - if they have to be treated - that it's now rather than 'back then.'"

A parking lot away from Ross, the Hudson River Psychiatric Center History Museum is located on the second floor of the maintenance building.  A stairwell hung with eye-catching snapshots dating from the antebellum ends at a plaque announcing "Door 238: History Museum."  Inside, a short, narrow corridor - which opens on both sides to exhibit rooms - stretches over hardwood floors.  Along one hallway wall, blueprints and aerial views of the campus hang opposite a timeline: grainy, illustrative photographs posted above the row of dates.  Beginning with the appointment of Dr. J.M. Cleveland as first director of the hospital in 1867, it marches dutifully through salient events in the institution's history.  Beneath the timeline, furniture made by former patients in woodshop, including a lectern, end tables, and a church-pew style bench, suggest a shrine.

Through an open doorway one enters the medical room, where wooden-wicker wheelchairs anchor two corners.  Cabinets and display cases are lined with apothecary detritus left over from days when the in-house pharmacy mixed medicines (mostly sedatives) on the premises; there are scales, giant mortar-and-pestles, laboratory flasks, tinctures, and microscopes.  More ominously, lobotomy tools (the main implement resembling a metal hand drill with a thick bit) sit beside a safety razor set.  In an adjoining room, among an eclectic mix of artifacts, nineteenth-century restraining devices seem borrowed from a torture museum.

Shaped like a medieval throne, the eponymous (Dr. Benjamin) Rush Tranquilizing Chair - designed by the "father of American psychiatry" and intended to secure a body into a fixed, upright position - contains a headpiece that fit over a patient's crown like an executioner's hood; arms and feet were immobilized within wooden frames.  Its "therapeutic intent" was to lessen muscle actions and increase blood flow to the brain.  Nearby, the single bed-sized, wooden-doweled Utica Crib resembles a circus cage suspended on chains.  Used in cases of "exhaustion" requiring bed rest, the bottom was cushioned in a layer of straw where patients laid inside and rocked back and forth.  "We have not used a straightjacket in this facility in more than a generation," says Christenfeld, standing before a relic of one displayed like the tunic of St.  Francis of Assisi, only with metal clasps resembling airplane seatbelt buckles in place of tassels.

More charitable display items complete the mise en scène.  Tools, furniture, clothes, shoes, and other handcrafted objects document how patient-residents in the early years of the Center were assigned service.  Organized into "squads" as painters, mattress-makers, carpenters, farmers, tailors, plumbers, cobblers, and other tradespeople, they worked in factory-like settings at looms and also ran a slaughterhouse, a mill, and a bakery in what was once "essentially a self-contained village," according to Christenfeld.  "But not all of them were especially ill."  In addition to making their own clothes and growing their own food, they also dined en masse,  attended church, and recreated.  Photographs show patients relaxing at game tables in the Smoking and Billiards Room as well as picnicking in fancy dress at outdoor banquet tables.

Two additional installation spaces are devoted to ancillary organizations.  One is dominated by a series of photographic montages dedicated to the Harlem Valley Hospital (a defunct Dutchess County psychiatric facility).  The other honors Poughkeepsie's HRSNS (closed in 1977), and includes samples of old nursing uniforms and diplomas.  A separate, adjoining room serves as a small library, containing archived medical journals, old patient cases, journals, reports, and ledgers.

The Hudson River Psychiatric Center History Museum is open by appointment only.  For more information, call (845) 483-3205.

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  • Pauline Uchmanowicz visits the Hudson River Psychiatric Museum.


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