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The Unnecessary Death of Greystone

The Unnecessary Death of Greystone

The Kirkbride building had the largest footprint of any structure in America until the Pentagon

The Kirkbride building had the largest footprint of any structure in America until the Pentagon

New Jersey is a place where baffling decisions are often made by those in power. I suppose that's true of most places, but one such decision is tough, if not impossible, for me to see any shred of logic in. Last year, the state voted to demolish Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, a long-abandoned structure in the middle of Morris County. As a fan of urban exploration and abandoned places, I was naturally dismayed at such news; anger, however, soon followed.

For one, it's a shame to see such a beautiful piece of historic architecture getting razed. The building was designed by Thomas Story Kirkbride, known for psychiatry rather than architecture; he believed that a "staggered" footprint for building wings promoted the health and comfort of patients under the institution's care. Victorian in design, it's both imposing and intricate in detail - try seeing this kind of elaborate architecture in some of today's glass-and-brick boxes. 

However, here's where things take a strange and perplexing turn. Since 2008, the state has reviewed proposals from several private developers for renovation and restoration of the property. Three of the plans required little to no taxpayer money, and asked for almost nothing from the state. Each plan was reviewed, but all were turned down. Instead, the state has opted to spend $34 million of our tax dollars to award a demolition contract. At the time of this writing, the building's far wings have already been demolished. 

Since then, hundreds of people have been rallying to save, at the very least, the central hub of the building (pictured above). Despite these efforts, the reaction from the government was, as one would expect, taciturn; it's as if they collectively put their fingers in their ears and walked away. 

In all honesty, I'm not surprised. Annoyed and dismayed, yes, but I always saw this within the realm of definite possibility.

I suppose we may never know the true rationale behind New Jersey's confounding choice to waste their (formerly our) money like this, given the heavily redacted documents that were released regarding the decision. One thing is immediately certain -- money and perks were undoubtedly exchanged behind closed doors. While I'm speculating heavily, let's not kid ourselves too much. Somebody benefited from the decision to bulldoze Greystone, and probably benefited heavily. If they didn't, then why is New Jersey so unforthcoming in their explanation?

Apart from that, the most disappointing aspect of the whole affair is that it's a great example of how society seems to be leaning. Rather than learn from past transgressions (there was a great deal of corruption and abuse while the hospital was operational), we tend to pave them over and hope that we can forget. While it's nice that the state is ultimately turning Greystone into parkland, I can't help but imagine how beneficial it would have been to keep this monument standing, a tribute to lessons learned from the more archaic eras of psychology and hospital operations. Equally, it's a magnificent piece of architecture that deserves a new life. 

While the battle isn't over for Greystone preservation activists, the plan is still going ahead quite quickly. If everything stays on schedule, the building will be a pile of rubble by the end of June. All we would have is the new Greystone, a beige, featureless, prison-style cube up the hill, and a blank field. 

Learning from the past, it seems, is something that New Jersey's government is unable to do just yet.

 

 

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