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Checkout Time at the Asylum


Fictional Bellevue occupant Marilyn Monroe with real-life inmates Eugene O'Neill and Mark David Chapman. Illustration by Gluekit  

The plan is to attract developers with an interest in turning the building into a hotel and conference center, which could serve as a hub for the area’s medical community and the East River Science Park now under construction. The EDC’s request for proposals points out that the building’s H-shaped layout—long hallways, small rooms—makes it a natural for redevelopment. The rooms at the ends of each leg of the H could be especially large and commodious. Those used to be the locked wards.

Yesterday’s asylum, tomorrow’s boutique hotel: It sounds like either a joke or a one-sentence history of Manhattan real estate. (Much of Columbia University, after all, was built on the grounds of the former Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.) When the news broke, there was an initial wave of you-gotta-be-kidding. They weren’t. On the contrary, according to spokeswoman Janel Patterson, the EDC received so many proposals by the June deadline that it spent the summer winnowing them down.

The old Bellevue Psychiatric is mostly empty now. A men’s shelter there is closing, an intake center for families in need is moving, and the rest of the building has been largely unused since 1984, when the hospital moved to newer quarters to the south.

And these days, it resembles nothing so much as a haunted house that has tried its best to cheer up and smile. Built in 1931 by Charles B. Meyers, an architect who seems to have specialized in places you don’t want to be (he also helped design the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street), it’s nine stories of red brick with a perimeter of grass and, on two sides, a low wall topped with tall, spiked wrought-iron fences that look like they were designed to reassure local residents that nobody was getting out. Inside, the main stairwell was once lined with WPA murals, now hidden beneath layers of institutional yellow and gray paint. Outside, vines cover the brickwork, and in the summer the west courtyard is overgrown with black-eyed Susans. A while ago, somebody had the bright idea to remove the diamond-crosshatched steel grates that gave the first floor its prisonlike look. They boarded up the windows and painted benign images on the plywood—a zoo animal, a flowing fountain.

It was a nice try.

Alice: I’ll go fix my lipstick. I won’t be gone long, Killer. I call you Killer ’cause you slay me.
Ralph: And I’m calling Bellevue ’cause you’re nuts!
—The Honeymooners

By the fifties, Bellevue—at least, the idea of Bellevue—was entrenched in pop culture. It was the place where the alcoholic writer played by Ray Milland in the 1945 Best Picture winner The Lost Weekend hit bottom, sweating it out in the locked men’s alcoholic ward. Milland spent a night there to prepare for his role and later recalled the darkness of the dormitory’s being pierced by “a long, undulating howl … the sound coyotes make at night in the high deserts of Arizona” that spread from inmate to inmate. Bellevue is also where the cops took Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street while he awaited a court hearing on the subject of whether Santa Claus was real.

But for Manhattanites, Bellevue had started to become a character in the ongoing melodrama of New York City decades earlier. Bellevue opened its first “pavilion for the insane” in 1879 and its first alcoholic ward in 1892. It was not a pretty picture; Jacob Riis included images of the conditions he found there in the lantern slide shows that he eventually compiled into How the Other Half Lives.

It wasn’t just the suffering of the “other half” that fascinated New Yorkers. Between 1890 and 1930, newspapers, led with surprisingly lurid gusto by the New York Times, published blow-by-blow accounts, sometimes in many installments, of any number of unfortunates who found themselves behind Bellevue’s walls.

Some of the stories had the contours of a Henry James novella. In 1894, fascinated readers could follow the saga of Mrs. Margaret A. Harrison, “a handsome white-haired woman” of 83 who was sitting on an estate valued at up to $100,000 but preferred to live in a boardinghouse on East 20th Street. When her estranged daughter heard that her mother was flirting with a fellow resident—an accountant 40 years her junior—and that large sums were mysteriously disappearing from her strongbox, she had her mother packed off to Bellevue, where she was swiftly declared senile by members of what was then called the State Lunacy Commission. Mrs. Harrison’s neighbors rose in fury to her defense, attesting to her “gentle manner and sweet disposition.” There were hints that her daughter, whose husband worked in dry goods, was acting with unseemly haste. “Old Mrs. Harrison’s Friends Indignant at Her Treatment,” blared the headline.


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