An historic treasure that should not be wasted.
The phenomenal turnout Monday night at Old Main in West Utica is yet another indication of the potential this National Historic Landmark holds for our region — and the state of New York – and the Landmarks Society of the Greater Utica Area needs to maintain its aggressive campaign to increase public accessibility to this magnificent structure on a more regular basis.
More than 3,500 people waited in line for two hours or more to get a glimpse of what was originally the New York State Lunatic Asylum. Built in 1843, it is renowned as being the first public institution for mental health in the state and one the earliest in the United States. Its massive Greek Revival columns — 48 feet tall, 8 feet in diameter — are believed to be the largest Doric style columns ever recorded.
The building — on the campus of the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center off Whitesboro Street — was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and on July 30, 1989, it became a National Historic Landmark, largely through the efforts of the Landmarks Society.
The Landmarks Society has been the key advocate for the preservation of Old Main. In the late 1980s, the group was instrumental in getting the state to reroof the building and to repair the massive front limestone steps, thanks to $2.2 million in funding secured by then-Sen. James Donovan.
In 1999, Landmarks was a catalyst for the formation of the Old Main Redevelopment Advisory Committee (OMRAC), which contributed heavily to the state Office of Mental Health (OMH) “reclaiming” the building and obtaining a Save America’s Treasure Grant to renovate the first floor. Today it’s used to store mental health records.
But more needs to be done. Landmarks’ Mike Bosak says a goal is to turn the ground floor of Old Main into a museum dedicated to the care and treatment of the mentally ill from the 1800s until today. The records, he said, could still be stored there, perhaps on upper floors. Such a museum would have an enormous draw. If more than 3,500 people will turn out just to walk through what is essentially an empty building, we can only imagine a museum’s potential.
“It would be a huge shot in the arm for heritage tourism in Greater Utica,” Bosak said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been a big proponent of heritage tourism, and we would urge our Utica-area representatives in Albany — Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, and Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica — to get the governor’s ear and tell him that Old Main would be a significant stop on New York’s “Path Through History” initiative that the governor inaugurated in 2012 to encourage Thruway travelers to exit and visit local attractions.
CALL TO ACTION: Sign a petition to help encourage state officials to find a suitable use for Old Main by visiting uticalandmarks.org.
OLD MAIN FACTS
The New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica opened in 1843 and helped to change the way people with men¬
tal illnesses are treated in this country.
Here are some significant facts about the asylum, commonly known as Old Main:
— It was New York’s first state-run asylum and one of the first in the nation. People with mental illnesses had lived in poorhouses and almshouses previously.
— Dr. Amariah Brigham, the asylum’s first superintendent, was an important figure in a new movement that believed that mental illness could be treated. The moral treatment espoused was the forerunner of modern psychotherapies.
— Patients worked on the asylum’s farm and at other tasks as part of their treatment. Treatment also included plays, an annual fair and a literary journal, The Opal, which was written and edited by patients.
— Brigham started the American Journal of Insanity, which evolved into the American Journal of Psychiatry, the journal of the American Psychiatric Association, of which Brigham was a founding member.
— Brigham developed the Utica crib, a lidded crib-like box hanging on chains, to help calm agitated patients in a more humane manner than existing restraints. The design spread to other asylums and the crib became an object of horror for many patients.
— Old Main, the original asylum building, closed in 1978 and its patients were transferred to other buildings on what is now the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center campus. The last inpatient wards at the psychiatric center closed last year, as part of the state’s decades-long focus on deinstitutionalization which stresses community care instead of inpatient care whenever possible.
Sources: Michael Keene, author of “Mad House: The Hidden History of Insane Asylums in 19th-century New York”; New York Archives magazine; American Psychiatric Association, Utica OD