Fighting for (an) asylum: Couple recounts battle for Greystone

Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews of Antiquity Echoes, at Acorn Hall in Morristown, Feb. 18, 2018. Photo by Nicholas Voltaggio.
Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews of Antiquity Echoes, at Acorn Hall in Morristown, Feb. 18, 2018. Photo by Nicholas Voltaggio.
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By Nicholas Voltaggio

Failure, after passion and hard work, can sometimes feel like the end of the world.

It can sap confidence and morale, and kill motivation.

At such times, however, it helps to re-evaluate what failure truly means. On Sunday, Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews of Antiquity Echoes visited Acorn Hall in Morristown to discuss the legacy of the Greystone Park State Psychiatric Hospital.

Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews filming Greystone's Kirkbride building, before the state demolished it.
Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews filming Greystone’s Kirkbride building, before the state demolished it.

Antiquity Echoes specializes in multimedia to convey the architectural importance and beauty of historical landmarks.

Tagliareni and Mathews led a packed house of listeners through a tumultuous journey that ended in heartbreak– with the unsuccessful fight to save Greystone’s largest building, one of several dozen asylums designed nationwide by Thomas Kirkbride in the mid-19th century.

The pair collaborated with a grassroots group called Preserve Greystone to lobby then-Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to spare Greystone’s Kirkbride Building from demolition.

But the demolition proceeded in 2015, with the administration never considering several preservation proposals or explaining to the public its rationale behind the tear-down, the duo said.

Tagliareni described the demolition as slow and painstaking, and said his team felt pieces of themselves dying with each wall that crumbled under the wrecking ball.

All that remains is the facade, featuring exquisite stonework. It will be turned into a memorial on the site, which now is a recreation area known as Central Park of Morris County.

Architectural marvels such as Greystone’s Kirkbride are more than just buildings, according to Tagliareni, who described them as “heirlooms of our community.”

“Beyond the brick and stone,” he said, “are personal histories.”

Although Greystone’s history is riddled with scandal and instances of mismanagement, Tagliareni reminded the audience that people, not the building, had made the errors.

Asylums remain symbols of the stigmatization of mental illness in the United States, making the preservation work of advocacy groups all the more important, he said.

Fortunately, some advocates have found success. In April 2015, Mathews and Tagliareni attended a conference in Michigan, near another former asylum designed by Kirkbride.

This one was rehabilitated over the course of 10 years, and now is a financially thriving commercial, residential, and business center called The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews of Antiquity Echoes have written a book about Greystone. Photo by Nicholas Voltaggio.
Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews of Antiquity Echoes have written a book about Greystone. Photo by Nicholas Voltaggio.

Tagliareni and Mathews feel the same transformation could have occurred at Greystone, which straddles the border of Morris Plains and Parsippany .

The Michigan conference concluded with the creation of Preservation Works, a national nonprofit that aims to save the remaining Kirkbrides.

Greystone’s destruction helped energize this organization, he said.

The Morris County Historical Society, which hosted Sunday’s talk, is organizing a trip to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, a Kirkbride building in Weston, W.V., on April 12-14, 2018.

To wrap up their presentation, Tagliareni and Mathews showed a preview of their still-in-production documentary, Greystone’s Last Stand, which they called an expression of all the emotions they experienced in the drive to save the massive structure.

They also have written a book, Images of America: Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.

Greystone seldom was a happy place, even in its best moments. The Kirkbride Building’s end was unceremonious and heartbreaking. Yet the place should not be brushed off as a pile of bricks, Tagliareni insisted.

We need to “remember the dark histories,” he said, “because those are the ones most easily forgotten.”

Morristown Green correspondent Nicholas Voltaggio is a freshman at Morristown High School.

MORE ABOUT PRESERVE GREYSTONE

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