Christmas at Greystone: Morristown library talk re-lives bygone era of pysch hospital

Hinge from the Kirkbride building at Greystone. Photo by Willie Quinn
Hinge from the Kirkbride building at Greystone. Photo by Willie Quinn

By Robyn Quinn

The holidays can be a “bipolar” time of year, with emotions ping-ponging between the frenetic Jingle Bells and the peaceful Silent Night.

Navigating these swings can be especially challenging within the walls of a psychiatric institution. Grover Kemble knows from personal experience—he was the music therapist at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains during a 25-year career there.

Grover, a jazz guitarist formerly with Sha Na Na and Za Zu Zaz, spoke last week at the Morristown & Morris Township Library in a presentation called The Holidays at Greystone. Hosted by the Preserve Greystone organization, the talk also featured historian Sue Shutte and the Rev. Peggy Mesinger, former chaplain at the hospital.

Photos by Willie Quinn. Please click icon below for captions.

Back in his college days, Grover volunteered at Greystone. One of his responsibilities was taking patients for shock therapy. “It was something I’ll never forget,” he said.

Eventually, he became supervisor of recreation. He delighted patients by organizing small groups in sing-alongs. During the library presentation, he treated the audience to an impromptu music therapy session. Several spectators donned Santa hats and led the room in Deck the Halls, Jingle Bells and Silent Night.

Every year, Grover and the staff worked with patients to produce a holiday show, a huge undertaking. The patients were involved in all aspects of the show.

As Grover recounted: “It’s a highly charged time of the year, emotions run high at that time of the year.”

He took great care to read the mood of patients, and regulate it as best he could with music. “I must have sung Jingle Bells a thousand times each holiday season,” he said. Multiplied by 25 years working at Greystone, “that’s 25,000 times I sang that song.”

The show usually turned out to be amazing, said Grover, praising his former colleagues.

“It is a very demanding time for the staff, but they give it their all,” he said.

Greystone was built in 1877 to promote a new method for treating mentally ill patients: The “moral treatment.”

This was a reaction to how such patients were cared for in the previous century, when they were placed in prisons or private institutions wearing restraining shackles. Greystone was envisioned as a family environment. It gained a reputation for its pioneering methods. Patients were encouraged to walk the grounds and meditate in the chapel. Greystone was a group of communities within a community, with its own fire and police departments, a post office, dairy farm, gas and water utilities.

The “moral treatment” required public support, because of the expense associated with creating something beautiful for patients. However, the moral treatment did not turn out to be the moral cure. Statistics presented at that time were skewed.

After completing treatment, patients were returned to their families. That was counted as a “cure.” The same patient could have a relapse and be returned for treatment. Once that treatment was completed, and the patient returned to the family again, another cure was counted. This went on and on and inflated the statistics on how the method was working.

Although the statistics were flawed, it still was evident that moral treatment was necessary.

Hinge from the Kirkbride building at Greystone. Photo by Willie Quinn
Hinge from the Kirkbride building at Greystone. Photo by Willie Quinn

“There was a moral sense that they had to do this for the people that needed it. In the chapel there are inlaid ceilings with patterns that are ageless and beautiful stenciled walls. This was all done with love and care. For me to be called to do my work in that setting is just incredible,” said the Rev. Mesinger.

During World War II the Mennonites in Pennsylvania were conscientious objectors. Rather than sending them to war, the government assigned some to work on the farm at Greystone. During their time there they saw firsthand the overcrowding and other conditions at the institution. They brought the conditions to light and changes were made because of their persistence.

In the 1970s, Rev. Mesinger was giving a tour of Greystone to some visitors and was surprised to learn that they were the same Mennonites that had been responsible for improving patient conditions 30 years earlier.

Sue Shutte, an historian specializing in 19th century American asylums, explained why the architecture of the buildings was so important. When construction began in 1876, the Kirkbride building was among the most elaborate asylums in New Jersey.

Sue said that “every aspect of the building had detail to it, right down to the hinges. During that time there was competition between the states for the most elaborate asylum.” Each state wanted to outdo the others to show the charity it bestowed on patients.

Morris County purchased 300 acres of Greystone for $1 in 2001. The purchase came with the stipulation that the land could not be used for any purpose other than “recreation and conservation, historic preservation or farmland preservation.” Preserve Greystone, an all-volunteer group, is working with the state to fulfill this specification.

The Kirkbride building is a beautiful example of the “Second Empire Victorian style.” It is located on hundreds of acres of beautifully landscaped grounds. Preserve Greystone is diligently working to save the Kirkbride Building, one of New Jersey’s most beautiful architectural structures, and other vacant Greystone facilities. (A new psychiatric hospital was built on the other side of Hanover Avenue a few years ago.)

At one time, Greystone was known as one of the most innovative facilities in the country, Sue said. A large part of that reputation was related to the beautiful surroundings. The landscape and buildings created a “walk around community” for patients and it’s still present at Greystone. To help save Kirkbride from ruin, contact Preserve Greystone.

Harry Noble and Grover Kemble recreate a Greystone holiday sing-along, at the Morristown & Township Library. Photo by Willie Quinn
Harry Noble and Grover Kemble recreate a Greystone holiday sing-along, at the Morristown & Township Library. Photo by Willie Quinn


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  1. The cause of saving the historic buildings and open space at Greystone has created a huge groundswell of support in Morris County. I’m happy to see an event like this where people who were involved with the site can talk about their experiences and why the place was unique. Thanks to all who worked on this event!

  2. This is a moving and thoughtful article. Well done. I’m the author of a book on the architectural history of psychiatric hospitals, and Greystone is an important building- no question. Thanks for calling our attention to the humanity that sometimes (if not always) survived there.

  3. As a nurse and a crisis screener who sent patients to Greystone for many years it is a delight to see the true intent of the facility. Mental illness has never been at the forefront of the public’s attention except in the most negative sense. It is a joy to see the renewed interest in the Kirkbride buildings and the good works with good intent that are being displayed. May Greystone be ever preserved.

  4. This colorful article really captures the essence of the evening. It seemed more like a party/ reunion than a serious meeting.
    It almost seems that Preserve Greystone has groupies and Roadies, and this is a good thing–loyal fans who are willing to speak out..
    The brand new T shirts and note cards are fantastic.Mine are going out for the Holidays. Cheers!

  5. Grover is amazing – I always knew he was a gifted musician and intuitively like him. Now I find he is also an amazing human being that helps others.

  6. ….Great article and I do hope this helps the Preserve Greystone organization as the word needs to get out there. …very well done informative and with fun pictures that gives the message some clarity. Grover Kemble