Seeking asylum in Morningside

As the tempting warmth of spring draws students from their hideaways in Butler, Columbians experience the therapeutic effects of fresh air and blooming life. Over 100 years ago, a rather different group was benefiting from the natural beauty and spring’s calm breeze in northwestern Manhattan: the patients of the Bloomingdale Mental Asylum.

Long before this lovely little patch of cement and grass was an urbanized neighborhood of academic and spiritual institutions, the area was home to a slightly different sort of institution.
In 1821, the New York Hospital opened a new mental facility near the village of Bloomingdale—the area now known as Morningside Heights, between 110th and 125th from Riverside to Morningside—as part of a plan to increase the availability of humane treatment for patients suffering from mental illnesses. The upper Manhattan location’s natural beauty, stunning views, and peaceful environment were considered favorable to the treatment of patients.

“They owned the Columbia campus, the Barnard campus, and some land to the South as well,” said Andrew Dolkart, a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and an expert on the development of Morningside Heights.

According to reports, the asylum was quite successful, and cared for a group of patients varied in condition and in socioeconomic status.

A report compiled in 1848 categorized the divided causes of patient illnesses into 85 categories. Of these, 7.8 percent of cases were attributed to religion. Exaggerated religious sentiment was generally acknowledged to constitute a mental disorder in the 19th century.

The asylum’s main building was grand and stately. One of the men responsible for construction described his motives in building such a respectable-looking institution, “This building ought to have the appearance of a palace, rather than a gaol, and by that means it will command the most wealthy patients in the United States.”

Outside of the asylum’s central building, extra pavilions were added to house “noisy” male and female patients. Separate pavilions also accommodated “refined” women and “wealthy” men. Later, even a bowling alley was added to the asylum grounds.

As the area around Bloomingdale began to urbanize, real-estate developers tried to squeeze out the Asylum.

“Real estate interests in the area tried to force them [Bloomingdale] out, but they were unsuccessful in doing it, ultimately,” Dolkart said.

There was less pressure on the Orphan Asylum. Dolkart argued, in “Morningside Heights: A History of its Architecture and Development,” that “while ‘lunatics’ might be considered poor neighbors, Christian orphans apparently did not depress real estate values.”

In the 1880s, New York Hospital decided to relocate their mental facilities to White Plains due to increased urbanization.

Concurrently, Columbia University was contemplating a move and looking for a piece of land that was both urban and large enough for a campus.

Undoubtedly by pure coincidence, Columbia was then located on the former site of another asylum—the former Deaf and Dumb Asylum complex on Madison and East 49th. At this cramped location, facilities were limited, and Columbia’s reputation was sinking. Moving represented a crucial step forward in the building of the University’s image.

Certain trustees favored a move to the country (either upstate or New Jersey), but President Seth Low asserted the importance of an urban location from an educational perspective.

The property of Bloomingdale Asylum became the most reasonable choice, an area of the city in which large tracts of lands could still be purchased but which was about to be built-up.
Conspiracy theorists have argued that New York Hospital and Columbia entered into secret negotiations in order to preserve the neighborhood from immigrants and to impose their own elitism. But no evidence exists to support this theory. In fact, the price for the land was particularly steep. It appears that the hospital was more concerned with raising money for their new White Plains facility than preserving the hegemony of the neighborhood.

Real estate interests were “none too happy when Columbia bought either, because that meant that it would remain undevelopable land,” Dolkart said.

But the University expressed no concern over the move to the former site of a mental institution. “When you go through the correspondence relating to the move up here, they are not concerned about the mental institution issue,” Dolkart said.

The architect for the Morningside campus, Charles McKim, planned to destroy all of the Bloomingdale buildings. Yet due to lack of funding, Buell Hall, otherwise known as La Maison Française, was preserved.

Campus tour guides may tell you that a contract existed between Columbia and Bloomingdale concerning the preservation of at least one building. “That’s 100 percent false,” said Dolkart. “I don’t know where they get their stories.”

McKim had planned for 12 classroom buildings, but only 9 were built. Originally, a building on the same model as Avery should have stood where Buell is. But money ran out, and Buell’s quaint brick exterior today contrasts charmingly with the austere academic design of much of the rest of the campus.

The building was altered slightly: a first-floor porch was removed. “If you look carefully, you can see the ghost of the porch all around the building,” Dolkart said.
Perhaps other ghosts of Bloomingdale continue to linger on the Columbia campus.

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