Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Personal Journey to Document Greystone Psychiatric Hospital

A Personal Journey to Document Greystone Psychiatric Hospital
By Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews

The history of the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital began in 1876 on a Parsippany hilltop and ended 139 years later, plowed under by the state of New Jersey. The rationale behind the destruction of a historic psychiatric hospital of inarguable national significance? To create open space. A tragic tale, but sometimes those are the ones which most need telling.

The story of how we came to write the book isn't as direct a tale as one may expect; our work with Greystone began years ago, and our work with forsaken buildings long before that. To better understand what drove us to compose the book as we did, we offer a little background into our own personal history, a story which begins on Myspace of all places. In 2009, we created a blog to serve as a counter-point to the massively popular paranormal 'reality' shows of the time. It seemed that every network had their own version of people running around abandoned buildings, screaming, with infrared cameras strapped to them. More often than not, they exploited the histories of these locations, spinning yarns based only loosely upon truth, and shoveling them off in weekly episodes. Our work, we hoped, would serve those who shared our own fascination in the histories of abandoned places, filtered from ghost stories or urban legends that often obstruct the much more interesting true-life narratives. That same year we moved from our blog to our current website – www.AntiquityEchoes.com.

We have been blessed with tremendous support since our inception, something we still feel very much humbled by to this day. It's what drives us, and has afforded us the ability to expand our range of travel out to locations across the county. We've met many amazing people over the years, and spoken to countless individuals who have shared their personal stories with us, often about locations we had documented, from a time well before they were left abandoned. Our work with these locations are often memorials, epitaphs left at the end of a long life. Being as such, we always try to do right by history and those who lived it, and whenever possible aid preservationists in their fights to save these places from the wrecking ball.

Fast-forwarding to 2013. Greystone asylum had been on our radar for years at this point, but it wasn't until then that we had an opening which would allow us to properly document it. We not only photograph locations, we also film them on video. Specifically we create cinematic shots, ones that require multiple bags of equipment as well as a six-foot computer controlled dolly assembly. It's no easy task, and requires lugging around what is essentially a portable film studio. We entered the hospital before dawn. We use natural light for most all of our filming, so we needed to await sunrise before actually setting up our equipment. We passed the time by perching ourselves on Greystone's roof. Laying in the cool summer air at sunrise, we watched as the orange rays pushed back upon the blue-hued fog of the evening, quickly dissolving it. It was an amazing sight, and the sunrise-lit building itself proved no less impressive. We spent all day filming, and though we were thoroughly exhausted by the end of it all, the grandeur of the old hospital kept us from ever wanting to leave. We were unaware at the time, but that was far from the last meeting we would have with Greystone.

By the end of that same year we met with a member of Preserve Greystone while attending the book release event for our friend Phil Buehler's book Wardy Forty, which chronicled Woody Guthrie's time at Greystone. We explained that we had a large collection of both imagery and video from within the abandoned hospital, and wanted to know if there was a way in which we could use what we had collected as a tool to aid in their preservation fight. After a couple of meetings it was decided that we should splice together what we had collected with formal interviews with members of the group and also individuals who had a more personal history with Greystone, such as former employees and local residents. It was to be a short video, roughly five minutes in total, which would get the Preserve Greystone message out in an easily-digestible way, and of equal importance, in a format that could be shared on social media.

Just a couple months into creating this short video, the state of New Jersey announced that they would be seeking demolition bids for the hospital. All of a sudden our short video with a few interviews snowballed into something altogether different, in both length and scope. Everyone wanted to talk to us now, and we wanted to hear what they all had to say. Every time we finished with someone, they would point is in the direction of another who we “absolutely need” to interview. It was amazing seeing the community pulling together, with Greystone serving as the grounding rod. But it was also incredibly stressful and sad. We were part of the fight now, it had washed over us without us even knowing.

By 2015 we had traveled literally thousands of miles, across multiple states collecting interviews and footage. The short video was now a feature film we came to title 'Greystone's Last Stand'. By this point in time the groundswell of support for Preserve Greystone was something that couldn't be ignored. There was a lot of pressure on the state to save the former Greystone Psych Hospital, to reopen discussion with developers, and to seek its listing on the National Historic Register. Regardless of the public outcry, the state of New Jersey began demolition on April 6, 2015. Just a few days later, hundreds of people gathered for a rally on the former hospital campus. Their cries fell upon deaf ears once again.

We kept fighting, even against what was quickly looking to be insurmountable odds. It really was the only way forward for us now. With every wall that fell our hearts broke a little more, and when we saw how it was tearing away at those who were fighting with us, the pain was that much deeper. Things were at their worst, however in the heart of all this turmoil and despair we saw something extraordinary happening. Somehow the fight for Greystone had lit a spark that was spreading out across the country. Communities throughout the United States were beginning step back, and look upon their own Kirkbride plan buildings with a renewed respect. They saw the disaster in New Jersey as their own, and though having never seen Greystone in person, the preservation message being heralded was a universal one. This feeling of collective loss came to a head in Traverse City, Michigan, on April 25th, 2015. We had been invited out to speak at a national historic asylum preservation conference, titled PreservationWorks, and organized by Christian VanAntwerpen. The event collected representatives from most all of the preservation groups fighting to save their own local asylums. It was a melancholy event for us, as we spoke to the importance of preservation, all the while Greystone was literally being torn apart some 900 miles away in New Jersey. That said – There were multiple moments at the conference that raised our spirits, most notable when Gene and Maxine Schmidt from Minnesota spoke on how their group had adopted the slogan “Don't let this become another Greystone” when regarding their local Fergus Falls hospital. The impact of what was going on in New Jersey really was far reaching. People really did care. It all really did matter. In fact the next day we discovered just how impassioned some had become.

We stayed after the event, attending a small informal meeting with organizer Christian VanAntwerpen and Robert Kirkbride. Christian, beyond organizing the PreservationWorks conference (the first of its kind), has been very much involved in the grassroots preservation fights of other historic asylums, most notably the Fergus Falls hospital center in Minnesota. His actions in 2013, titled 'Project Kirkbride' helped bring the plight of the disused asylum building to a  more public light through his organizing of a photography event that aimed to shoot every square inch of the building. To say that Robert Kirkbride is a driven man would be an understatement. He has crafted a successful career from his passion for architecture and history, and is currently the Dean & Associate Professor at the Parsons School of Constructed Environments. Independent of that, he also shares lineage with Thomas Story Kirkbride, the man who's design for psychiatric hospitals went on to be known as the aforementioned 'Kirkbride plan'. Together we discussed how asylums are among the most endangered historic buildings in the United States, as they very often have terrible stigmas attached to them that are often difficult for people to see past. Though everyone who takes the time to really look at these places can clearly see there's much more to them, the average person has precious little information at their disposal. An uninformed populace are easy pushovers for demolition over revitalization, especially with regards to buildings with often sordid pasts. By the end of that meeting the groundwork for a national advocacy group was laid out. We look back at the moment as one of the most profound life experiences we have had to date. Today the group is known as PreservationWorks, and is a nationally recognized nonprofit fighting to save the last of our country’s remaining Kirkbride asylums.

At this same time we were also approached by Skyhorse Publishing to create a collection of locations from our website as a hardcover coffee table book. We did not expect to have another opportunity to give Greystone such a public sendoff, so upon completion we informally dedicated the book to Greystone, with a full chapter about the asylum, and an image of the hospital's grand staircase as the cover.

As the year wore on, and Greystone was razed bit by bit, we made sure to document every notable undertaking of the demolition. It pained us to watch, but there was also this underlying sense that we needed to record it, not only for the film, but for posterity’s sake...whatever that may be. As it would so happen, we found a use for our efforts faster than expected. Arcadia Publishing had reached out to Preserve Greystone asking if they, or someone they knew would be interested in composing a book about Greystone for their 'Images of America' series. They directed them to us, and within a couple weeks we had signed contracts and the green-light to create not only create a traditional 'Images of America' book, but something that may also serve as a preservation tool. With a wonderfully penned introduction by Robert Kirkbride, and a vastly expanded final chapter which tells the story of the preservation fight, and highlights some of the more controversial elements of the demolition, we were able to put together something that we feel truly embodies not only the history, but the spirit of Greystone.

All told, it was a tough fight, a lost fight, but not a fight without meaning. It did not break our spirits, nor those of the many we have met along the way. If anything we have all been hardened by the battle. Even if we knew the outcome from the onset, we would not hesitate to do it all over again.

About the Books
Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital (Images of America)
The Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital was more than a building; it embodied an entire era of uniquely American history, from the unparalleled humanitarian efforts of Dorothea Dix to the revolutionary architectural concepts of Thomas Story Kirkbride. After well over a century of service, Greystone was left abandoned in 2008. From the time it closed until its demolition in 2015, Greystone became the focal point of a passionate preservation effort that drew national attention and served to spark the public’s interest in historical asylum preservation. Many of the images contained in this book were rescued from the basement of Greystone in 2002 and have never been seen by the public. They appear courtesy of the Morris Plains Museum and its staff, who spent many hours digitally archiving the photographs so that future generations may better know Greystone’s history.

Antiquity Echoes: A Photographed Tour of Abandoned America
Antiquity Echoes is a guided tour of some of our nation's most compelling abandoned locations. With a wide spectrum of places covered, readers will be walking the dark halls of an abandoned mental asylum on one page and lost in the overgrowth of an abandoned theme park on the very next. With a focus on history and first-hand accounts by the authors, Antiquity Echoes is far more than a collection of photography and text; it’s an adventure story - one that is enhanced by QR codes linking to videos of these incredible locations.

Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews have spent years traveling the country documenting forlorn locations throughout the United States, sharing their deep passion for history and preservation in an effort that has helped generate alliances with many historic societies and preservation organizations.

What makes a place worth remembering? Antiquity Echoes ventures that this value derives from the lessons a place can teach us, even long after it has been of use. No matter how forgotten a place has come to be, underneath the overgrowth, cracked paint, and filth of ages, lie countless stories awaiting a sympathetic ear.

About the Authors
Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews have been documenting abandoned historical properties throughout the United States for well over a decade. In 2009 this website 'Antiquity Echoes' was launched, dedicated to archiving these locations and raising public awareness about the plight befalling these beautiful and often significant buildings. Along the way Rusty and Christina have formed close bonds with numerous historical societies and preservation groups. Their work has been featured in and on many websites, newspapers, and magazines, as well as on the television show 60 Minutes.

In 2015 Rusty and Christina released a nationally-distributed coffee table book through Skyhorse Publishing titled Antiquity Echoes: A Photographed Tour of Abandoned America, which, like the website it's named after, shares with readers the sombre beauty found in the ruins of modern day America. Rusty And Christina were also heavily involved with the Preserve Greystone movement, a grassroots organization founded to raise awareness and seek preservation of the disused Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany, New Jersey. Utilizing their background in film and photography, they documented every pivotal moment in the fight to save the old asylum, including sit-down interviews with those involved with the efforts, former employees, and spokespersons for the private organizations who were interested in rehabilitating the old hospital for future use. They called the film “Greystone's Last Stand”. Though still in production, excerpts from the film were used to garner public support for the preservation effort.

In 2015 Rusty and Christina presented at 'PreservationWorks', a national historic asylum conference, on the topics of preserving our nation's few remaining historic asylum complexes, and re-purposing them for future use beyond their initial roles as hospital centers. In the days following the conclusion of the conference a nonprofit organization called 'PreservationWorks' was created, with Rusty and Christina as founding members. PreservationWorks operates as a national advocacy group with the purpose of protecting the country's last remaining Kirkbride institutions.

In 2016, Rusty and Christina released the bestselling Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, a book in Arcadia publishing's 'Images of America' series. From the back cover - “The Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital was more than a building; it embodied an entire era of uniquely American history, from the unparalleled humanitarian efforts of Dorothea Dix to the revolutionary architectural concepts of Thomas Story Kirkbride. After well over a century of service, Greystone was left abandoned in 2008. From the time it closed until its demolition in 2015, Greystone became the focal point of a passionate preservation effort that drew national attention and served to spark the public's interest in historical asylum preservation.”

Rusty and Christina are also regularly involved with the publication 'Weird NJ', a bi-annual magazine billed as a "travel guide to New Jersey's local legends and best kept secrets". Typically their work with the magazine focuses upon abandoned places in and around New Jersey, and their histories. A few notable locations Antiquity Echoes has contributed to Weird NJ include Overbrook Asylum, Penn Hills Honeymoon Resort, Woodland Cemetery, and the Nathaniel White Murder House

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