WPA Murals at Risk from Plan to Redevelop Historic New York Psychiatric Center
By Eric Wills | Online Only | May 8, 2009
At its peak in the 1950s, the Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangetown, N.Y., was home to nearly 10,000 patients living in more than 100 buildings near Lake Tappan. Today, the center, once at the forefront of psychiatric research in this country, sits largely vacant, a casualty of New York's decision to downsize its mental health facilities. And the town of Orangetown is now considering a proposal that would tear down more than 50 of the center's Mission and Colonial revival buildings to construct new housing.
A plan proposed by K. Hovnanian Homes, a New Jersey developer, calls for 575 housing units, almost all of which would be age-restricted for persons 55 years and older, with some units for volunteers from the town's emergency services.
"When I saw the site, I was really dismayed to see how extensive it was, how large these buildings were," says Roberta Lane, program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Northeast office. "It would be really sad to lose them."
In addition to threatening scores of historic buildings, the proposal also puts at risk three massive Works Progress Administration murals inside a structure slated for demolition.
The psychiatric complex opened in 1931 and featured housing for both patients and staff, as well as fields for growing produce and even a furniture-making shop. According to the draft environmental impact statement for the proposed development, the site is significant "as perhaps the largest assemblage of institutional Mission-style buildings in the Hudson Valley and historically as one of the foremost centers in the country for psychiatric research."
Town Supervisor Thom Kleiner says that the proposed housing will bring much-needed income to Orangetown, including an estimated $4.6 million in annual tax revenue, and $24 million from the sale of the property to the developer. Orangetown purchased about 350 acres of the site from New York state for $5.95 million in 2003, and agreed as part of the sale to reserve 216 acres for open space and recreation. New York state still owns about 200 acres and continues to operate mental health facilities on the site.
"There is nothing particularly unique or worthy of preservation in terms of the buildings themselves," Kleiner says. And, he adds, they would be difficult to adapt. "That era of construction, the narrow hallways, is not particularly suited for the kind of development that's been proposed," he says. In the coming weeks, the town will hold public meetings to discuss the environmental impact statement.
Kleiner and other local officials have tried to find an organization willing to rescue the murals, posting Youtube videos to publicize their threatened state.
Kenneth Jay Linser, an art appraiser, was especially struck by the 35-foot-long mural entitled The Legends of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow, painted by Victor Pedrotti Trent in 1942. "This is something to be taken down and saved. It probably represents a high point in this man's career," Linsner recalls thinking when he first saw it.
Trent painted another work here entitled the Four Seasons. A third mural, signed by P. Albretti, is considered less important and probably doesn't warrant the effort to save it, Linsner says. He estimates the cost of removing and storing the other two murals at $130,000.
Says Kleiner: "We're seeking outside help for preserving the murals. We welcome anyone to step forward."
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