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‘Abandoned Asylums’ photos shed light on poignant history of institutions

A dust-covered Cabbage Patch doll sprawls in one corner of a stark abandoned corridor.

A curving hallway of magnificent arched windows is littered with dead leaves, broken panes and other debris.

A heavy door with a wire-reinforced peephole is stenciled with the words. “Keep door locked unless nurse is present.”

These mysterious and ominous images of closed and vacant institutions for the mentally, developmentally and physically disabled in Massachusetts and Connecticut were taken by photographer John Gray. Many of the buildings he photographed between 2000 and 2005 have since been razed.

But the images survive and have been republished in a glossy new art book titled “Abandoned Asylums of New England” by the Museum of disAbility History in Amherst.

“We want to introduce disability history to people in a way that’s not threatening, that’s interesting to them, that shows that disability has always been with us,” said James M. Boles, president of People Inc., which operates the museum and published the 219-page book through its People Ink Press.

Because of the stigma attached to people suffering from disabling conditions, their history was often ignored, suppressed or forgotten. Therefore, according to People Ink Press, their records and memories “are fading into the past – into the world of abandoned history.”

Gray took his photos at a critical time. Many of the massive institutions he photographed had been long closed, as the concept of how to treat the ill and disabled focused on smaller, more individual options. “Places like these are abandoned because we are trying to serve people by reintegrating them back into the community so they can participate,” said Douglas Platt, curator of the museum, who wrote the introduction to the book. “As a community we can also work toward tapping into the potentials that all different people in a diverse population have to offer, rather than institutionalizing them.”

With no interest in preserving the sometimes massive institutions, the buildings were left open to weather, vandals and the degradations of time. The resulting images are haunting and evocative.

In Gray’s photos, obsolete machinery, including a scattering of syringes, iron lungs and large tubs used in water therapy, were simply abandoned in the buildings. The stark beauty and mysterious poignancy of the scenes attracted Gray, who found the buildings wide open.

But, said Platt, the images are “more than just eerie photographs or ghost-hunterish sights. These were real places that tried to fulfill a real need in society. When you acknowledge the existence of people who have been marginalized in the past, you are giving them a voice and giving them a chance to be proud to be part of a community that is recognizing the value of their humanity.”

In 2003, Gray self-published a book that contained many of the photos. It is out of print, but is often mentioned in online discussions.

The Museum of disABILITY History, the only museum of its kind in the world, has already published several books as part of its Abandoned History series. They focus on such topics as Western New York almshouses and poorhouses and a school for the handicapped.

After learning of the photos, Boles met with Gray in Massachusetts and proposed publishing the photos, with some additions. Platt said, “We wanted to put in some history, we wanted to select the photographs, which there are hundreds and hundreds of, and we agreed that we would do an introduction, add a history of each site, and we also mapped each site.”

The photographer was enthusiastic, said Boles. “He especially liked the history part.”

“The Museum did a great job reproducing my images and the publication is great,” Gray said in an email.

In his introduction, Platt describes some of the ways institutions were designed and the philosophy behind each one.

“They wanted to build structures that the public could believe in, that would stand the test of time, and also meet the aesthetic and medical concepts that were put forth by Thomas Story Kirkbride,” a 19th century physician who worked with the mentally ill, said Platt. “A lot of these are Kirkbride-style buildings, much like Buffalo Psychiatric Center.” The Kirkbride buildings are constructed with male and female wards on either side of a central administration building, and offer plenty of natural light and ventilation. The Kirkbride structures were usually surrounded by manicured grounds and even farms where residents worked.

“The Kirkbride design was the architecture of balance,” said Platt. “It was believed that this design would help lift these people out of their plight of mental illness and bring them closer to being restored and balanced.”

Although designs changed throughout the years, the construction remained beautiful and high-quality for decades.

“These weren’t shantytowns, these were executed by some of the most prominent architects of their time for a reason,” said Platt. “When you look at the metaphor between the state of these buildings, and the changing states and perceptions of care for people with disabilities, I think it makes it much more poignant.”

Each chapter of “Abandoned Asylums” is about a separate facility, nine in Massachusetts and three in Connecticut. Each begins with a brief history of the institution, followed by a postcard or other image of the main buildings and a map.

Several of the hospitals have the word “insane” in their titles, while one was built “for dipsomaniacs and inebriates,” and another is a school “for the feeble-minded.” An editor’s note points out that the exact language of the historical period has been retained for historical accuracy.

Unable to find a Buffalo-area printer who could do what they wanted, the publishers settled on a Rochester company for the initial printing of 500 copies. The book, which is available only in the gift shop of the disABILITY History museum at 3826 Main St., Amherst, or on the web site ( costs $64.

Boles and Platt are extremely interested in producing a book on the Richardson Olmsted Complex, the former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. “We would love to do something with them,” said Boles.

“We’re thinking about a collaboration, because we have a beautiful Kirkbride building right in our area,” said Platt. “I’ve seen other books similar to this and almost every book will have a photo of the twin towers of the Richardson.”