I was up scouting the Columbia University campus last week…
…and in the spirit of Halloween, I decided to swing by the building nestled just beside Low Library.
If you take a moment to stare at it, you’ll realize this little brick building doesn’t really match the surrounding Beaux Arts architecture.
In fact, the longer you look at it, the more you’ll realize just how out of place this three-story brick building looks compared to its surroundings.
This makes sense, of course, because the building dates to a time when Columbia University was located over 50 blocks south…
…and in its place was the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum:
Opened in 1821, the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum (or Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum) was built on an enormous 38-acre parcel of farmland in what was then known as Bloomingdale, from the Dutch “bloomendaal,” or “vale of flowers.” The first mental hospital in the state, it offered patients a lush, manicured campus complete with gardens and paths, groves of trees, playgrounds and greenhouses, and views of the Hudson and Harlem River.
In fact, the original hospital building, made of brownstone and able to accommodate 200 patients…
…stood exactly where Columbia’s Low Library is today:
You can find the Asylum ominously identified on most 19th-century maps, stretching from 120th Street to about 112th Street or so.
In 1840, a new insane asylum for the indigent was opened on Roosevelt Island, and soon after, Bloomingdale began catering primarily to the wealthy and elite of society. The campus continued expanding through the decades, including the addition of wings to the original hospital building (compare the entrance below to the pictures above):
However, with city development rapidly moving north, the hospital’s governors knew their Manhattan oasis wasn’t long for this world. Land was purchased in White Plains for relocation, and the majority of the property was sold to Columbia University in 1892 for $2,000,000.
Today, just one building remains from the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum: Buell Hall, formerly known as the Macy Villa.
Here’s a picture from 1897 showing both the original asylum grounds and Columbia’s encroaching construction. You can see the Macy Villa on the far right:
The same view today:
Built in 1885, Macy Villa was the final building to be constructed at the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. It was intended for the wealthiest male patients so that they could live in a residential setting, away from the noise and discomforts of the main hospital wards. It originally featured a wooden porch…
…but is otherwise virtually unchanged today:
The building was originally intended to be torn down once construction was completed but somehow managed to survive. It was moved back from 116th Street to its current position and has remained there ever since:
The Macy Villa is one of my absolute favorite buildings in New York. There is just something so surreal about touching its bricks and having that physical connection to a time when its surroundings would have been totally unrecognizable, a sprawling insane asylum located on a vast expanse of verdant land.
A time when the professors and students passing you by on the walks would have instead been doctors and nurses, patients and their families.
And here would have lived the wealthiest and most elite of those patients, those who found that their great success in life ultimately fell second to the power of their own minds.
The interior retains little of the original building, as it has been altered numerous times over the years to accommodate a myriad of Columbia groups and departments.
Finding information about the conditions at Bloomingdale is difficult. The hospital certainly offered the most advanced care of its day, but it’s frightening to think what that might have been. I came across one report of a doctor who had his wife committed to Bloomingdale after she complained about his frequenting brothels (she was only released after agreeing not to bring it up).
I don’t believe in ghosts, but if there’s one building at Columbia I’ve always thought should be haunted, it’s Buell.
There are a few other connections to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum worth mentioning. Back in the day, one would take Asylum Lane off of Broadway (then known as Bloomingdale Road) to approach the hospital. As development spread north, the road was eventually lost under new construction (you can see it at the bottom of the map):
However, according to Andrew Dolkart in his book, Morningside Heights, remnants of Asylum Road can still be found in the strange angles of nearby buildings. Note the odd slants of the below properties…
…and you’ll see that a road could perfectly fit through. This would have been Asylum Road.
To anyone who’s ever eaten at the great Mexican restaurant The Heights, now you know why the interior has such a strange triangular shape:
A picture of the road leading up to the asylum:
Two other asylum buildings almost survived demolition. Located near 116th Street and Broadway was the Superintendent’s House:
Sadly, this was demolished in 1922 and replaced with Dodge Hall:
The other was a hospital building just west of Low Library, in use for only a short time before demolition.
Finally, probably the most mysterious remnant from the asylum is Columbia’s sprawling underground tunnel system connecting every building on campus, the oldest of which date back to the Bloomingdale days. They’re off-limits to students, and the old asylum tunnels in particular are reported to be very small, VERY hot, and extremely dangerous (of course, that doesn’t stop the tunnelers – check out this video for a quick trip into the bowels of Columbia).
It’s nothing short of a miracle that such a well-preserved building from the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum still exists. While visitors might overlook it for the more palatial Low Library, or the austere Butler Hall, I always take a moment to stare at Buell and try to think of it as it once was.
Then I get the strange feeling that someone’s watching me from one of those third floor windows and move on. Because you never know…
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