AHP & FieldNotes @ Utica’s “Old Main”

This is a special post co-authored by Jeremy Burman and Jennifer Bazar. It is co-hosted at both the Advances in the History of Psychology (AHP) and FieldNotes blogs.

On Thursday we were given a unique opportunity to tour the interior of the building that was originally opened as the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, NY. Built in 1843 to house the state’s so-called insane, the building remains an imposing example of Greek Revival architecture complete with six 48′ tall limestone columns flanking the main entrance.

We began the day in the contemporary institution on the property, the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center. Within the building is displayed a number of historical photographs and furniture (including a decorative fireplace!) from the original building. Among this collection was a large painting of Amariah Brigham, the institution’s first medical superintendent, which had been commissioned by some of the patients. Brigham was extremely influential in asylum history: he was one of the founders of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions (precursor to American Psychiatric Association), launched the American Journal of Insanity (precursor to the American Journal of Psychiatry), and created several unique items including a phrenological hat and the Utica crib.

Afterward we were taken into “Old Main” – the original nineteenth-century building still standing on the property. Entering from the back, we toured the first floor of the building which has in recent years been renovated to meet safety concerns. To stand within the walls of the building really gave a different perspective from the architectural maps and photographs of the building we had seen previously. The rooms are largely empty but do contain various pieces of furniture from both Utica’s past as well as related institutions that opened across the state throughout the nineteenth century. We saw wooden chairs and tables – some intricately carved, others more simple in their design – some of which would have been built by the patients or purchased from one of the state prisons, who also manufactured institutional furniture.

It was an interesting experience overall. Walking one of the wings off the main body of the building, for instance, really helped emphasize the arrangement of the individual patient rooms: side-by-side, running the length of a long hallway, all of the same size and dimension, each with a painted number above their doorway. It really helped make the archival materials we had previously seen come to life.

Out of everything we saw, one of the best moments of the day would definitely have to be when we walked out the front door and stood on the porch underneath the columns. The entrance had seemed awe-inspiring from the driveway but standing on the porch itself and looking up to the top of the columns and the intricately designed overhang emphasized the feeling ten-fold.

For making this opportunity a possibility, we are both extremely grateful to Craig Williams (New York State Museum, Albany, NY), Christopher Powers (Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center, Utica, NY), and the Chief of Security of the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center (Utica, NY).