Singing Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land amid chants of “Don’t Tear It Down,” demonstrators on Sunday marched on the grounds of the former Greystone Park State Psychiatric Hospital, urging a halt to demolition of the 139-year-old Kirkbride Building.
The state tear-down began last week on the massive structure where Guthrie, the legendary folksinger, was treated in the late 1950s when his Huntingon’s disease was mistaken for mental illness.
More than 300 people, some from as far away as Michigan, came to the sprawling campus on the border of Morris Plains and Parsippany to make their case, as a large contingent of Morris County Park Police patrolled on foot, on horseback and on three-wheeled vehicles.
Preserve Greystone, organizer of the rally, was unable to obtain a permit for a large gathering, so volunteers assembled protesters into groups of about two dozen apiece.
Jazz singer Grover Kemble, who ran Greystone’s art therapy program for years, performed an original song about the hospital, and demonstrators paraded, one group after another, across a lawn in front of the Kirkbride Building, now a mass of broken- and boarded-up windows.
Under sunny skies, the activists spoke about preserving one of the nation’s last remaining asylums designed by Thomas Kirkbride. It should be saved, they said, both for its magnificent Second Empire Victorian architecture and for the dark story it tells about mental health treatment in America.
“History happened here. And once this building’s gone people are going to forget a lot of that history,” said Phil Buehler, author of Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty, Greystone Park Hospital Revisited.
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When Greystone opened, it was considered a progressive place, where farms and nature and airy rooms would provide a therapeutic environment for the mentally ill. Decades of funding cutbacks and neglect made it a center of controversy and despair; the Kirkbride Building, Greystone’s focal point, closed in 2008.
So why save something, at great expense, that harbors so many painful memories?
“Ellis Island was also sad history, in many ways, and we preserved that, and it’s meaningful still,” Buehler said. “Mental illness is sad, yet a lot of good work and caring people were here. And I think that also needs to be remembered.”
Developers submitted seven proposals to re-purpose the building. Various plans called for a museum, housing and retail shops.
The state Treasury Department concluded last year that none of the proposals were economically viable, and opted for demolition that is anticipated to cost about $38 million. The land will be donated to Morris County, which already has created a public park, called “Central Park,” on the former hospital grounds.
One of the rejected proposals for Greystone came from the redevelopers of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, a Kirkbride building in West Virginia that was transformed into a museum.
Another Kirkbride building, the Traverse City State Hospital in Michigan, has been converted into an event space called Kirkbride Hall.
“They had to demolish some of it, because it was in much worse condition than this one. This one’s actually in great condition for a Kirkbride,” said Jay Patterson, who drove from Grand Rapids, MI, with her friend Dee Dee to attend the Greystone rally.
Kirkbride Hall in Travserse City includes shops, restaurants and a senior living center, Patterson said.
Sunday’s demonstrators also included a pair of 16-year-olds, Louis Inghilterra of Pauling, NY, and Abigail Zuckert of New Canaan, CT., who both learned of Greystone online.
“It’s better than what I’ve seen in pictures,” said Inghilterra.
“I think the building should be saved to appreciate history and teach younger generations of the past,” said Zuckert. “I think they should turn it into an art center, meaning it could be an art museum, concerts can be held here, gatherings, weddings, maybe.”
Rachel Harvey, a Morristown High School freshman from Morris Plains, said the Kirkbride Bulding used to frighten her.
“Now I just think it’s beautiful,” she said.
“To see it get destroyed would be disrespectful,” added her friend and classmate Rebecca Loglisci.
Preserve Greystone plans to continue legal efforts to halt the demolition, said organization President John Huebner. No public hearings were held by the state prior to its decision, he said.
“I think the participation here today is a good indication of what people think of the deal that’s in place, of borrowing $50 million simply to get rid of . That may be the easy way out for the decision makers. But for the taxpayers, that stinks,” Huebner said.
What remains to be seen, rally organizers said, is whether the wrecking ball already has done irreparable damage, by preventing potential redevelopers from seeking $20 million in federal tax credits.
Stay tuned for more coverage.