The Christ Episcopal Church in Willard, NY (that just so happened to also have free tours the day of the Willard Psychiatric Center annual tour) was first built in 1886, with the congregation forming nine years before that in 1877. According to Bea, our tour guide of the church, historical church documents reveal that in 1877 the people who lived in the newly formed Hamlet of Willard in Ovid, NY began to worship together at the ‘urging and guidance’ of the Reverend Charles W. MacNish, who was then the Chaplain of the Willard Asylum for the Insane (now referred to as the Willard Psychiatric Center), located directly across the street. The beginnings of those early services were to become known as “cottage services” because they were held from one house to another, and since Willard is literally on Seneca Lake, cottages were the typical housing built for the employees of the also newly built Willard Asylum. Only nine short years later in 1886, the corner stone was laid for the current structure Chris and I were now standing in. Little did we know how deeply entrenched this church was in the history of the former asylum…and yes, we saw the asylum too so keep reading.
Chris and I actually had no idea we would be touring the Christ Episcopal Church and simply saw a “Free Tours” sign in front so we of course went in. Once inside we met Bea, who basically does everything at the church. While Chris and I have certainly been in various size houses of worship, Christ Episcopal in Willard is a one room building that is quite small and quaint. However, despite its size, it certainly does not hold back from having a very beautiful interior. Bea then informed us of some of the history mentioned above and showed us around. She reinforced that the Church was built for the staff of the Willard Asylum to be able to worship and for most of the church’s history, the congregation always consisted of Willard employees, up until 1995 when the psychiatric center closed. Today the congregation of the church is still made up of Willard town-folk, but since 1995, the church congregation has seen a steady decline as many people have had to re-locate for employment purposes.
We learned of two particular points of interest in the Christ Episcopal Church, the first being the Main Altar table. In the middle of the Holy Table there is a marble stone, which is meant to be for resting the Sacred Vessels on. While this itself is not necessarily unique, this particular marble stone was salvaged from a piece of marble from inside the Willard Asylum, further emphasizing Christ Episcopal’s connection to the asylum across the street. The second point of interest is one specific stained glass window in the Church which is dedicated to Dr. Kenneth Keill. Dr. Keill was the Director of the Willard Asylum from 1941-1962 and according to Bea, played a prominent role in emphasizing Christ Episcopal’s importance to the health and stability of the Willard community, which directly aided to the health and stability of the Willard Asylum.
If you are anything like us, you all now probably want to know more about the Willard Asylum? To be honest, Chris and I did not even see Christ Episcopal Church until after we had toured the Willard Asylum, so here’s the rest of the story…which is actually the beginning.
For those that may not know or may not realize, for the most part Chris and I have kept our non-religious adventures off of this blog. I say for the most part because if you go back through our history, there are a few allowances to this and to be honest, there will more than likely continue to be exceptions…starting right now. For at least the last three years, I have been aware of there being an annual organized tour to see the Willard Psychiatric Center, where the proceeds go to the upkeep of the Cady Stanton Childcare Center housed on the grounds of the former psych center. However, for multiple reasons, I have never been able to go…until this year and of course Chris was certainly up for the trip. Our plan was to see the former chapel at Willard as a means of sharing our adventures to religious places on this blog, while also sharing the greater story of visiting Willard as a whole.
We arrived to our destination around 8:55 am at the Grandview building, just minutes before the tour was to start. We walked in and noticed lots of people were actually leaving the building in quite a hurry and getting in their cars. As we approached the ticket table, we were told by a volunteer that the tours had started at 9:00 am and we were in fact too late, but we could return for the 1:00 pm tours. Chris then informed the woman that it was actually 8:58 am and we were in fact on time. I did not know whether I should laugh at Chris’s response or to cry because I may miss the tour for a fourth year in a row. Chris and I walked away showing our obvious displeasure and made the decision we could not attend the later tour. However, within about 60 seconds, the woman came back and invited us to join the tour that had only started minutes before, in the basement of the Grandview building we were in. Chris and I did not skip a beat and followed the volunteer as she took us into the basement.
We then joined a tour of approximately 40 people (we later learned that an average tour size was around 20) and nearly everyone had a camera and was trying to get creepy shots of seemingly random, but obviously intentionally placed chairs in the corners of rooms. With 40 people all trying to take pictures of everything, while also trying to listen to the tour guide explain what we were seeing proved to be a bit challenging. Chris and I quickly realized the best approach was to befriend the tour guide, so that when he was ready to move on to another room or site, we would follow him immediately in order to be in the room first. By doing this, we were then able to get some pictures without a crowd in the way and then be able to walk around freely and explore. Unfortunately, we also eventually learned from our tour guide that while there used to be a chapel on site, our tour guide did not know where it was. This was a bit disappointing for us to hear since at the time, we had yet to learn of the church across the street, so in our eyes, we were now questioning what if anything we could blog about…but we carried on.
Originally, what today we know as the Willard Psychiatric Center, was the New York State College of Agriculture at Ovid and after five years of planning, it officially opened in 1860. “For $200 a year students would receive classroom instruction and practical on-the-farm experience.” One of the first buildings built for the new college is what is now known as the Grandview Building, due to its grand view of Seneca Lake when you are looking out the windows on the upper floors. However, if you know your history, the year 1860 was not the best year to open anything. By 1861, due to the request for volunteers by President Abraham Lincoln for the approaching Civil War, the new Agricultural College saw its enrollment deplete to nothing. By 1862 the new College made the tough decision to “temporarily” close their doors. Also unfortunate to the Town of Ovid, a brand new state agricultural college was being formed in the Town of Ithaca that became known as Cornell University and this is where the state re-focused its energies in agriculture. The doors of the New York State College of Agriculture at Ovid never re-opened.
As the need for treatment and housing of the mentally ill increased in New York State, more and more lands in Upstate New York began to be considered. The first state-run facility designed to care for the mentally ill and also one of the first such institutions in the United States, was the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica, which opened in 1843 and was filled to capacity two years later. Other similar institutions began to open in Binghamton, Buffalo and also what became known as Willard. Today, Willard is the proper name of a hamlet in Ovid, New York, which eventually took its name from the Willard Psychiatric Center. The psych center earned its name from Dr. Sylvester D. Willard, one of the instrumental individuals in getting the State to approve of the new location for a state-run psych center and he was also the Surgeon-General of New York State at the time. However, shortly before the new institution could open, Dr. Willard died of typhoid fever and in his memory, it was decided the new institution would be officially named the Willard Asylum for the Insane. The new institution received its first patient in the year 1869, when Mary Rote, who is described to have been “deformed and demented…with her wrists chained together” was transported via boat from Columbia County up through the Finger Lakes to the new hospital. Shortly thereafter other patients began to arrive as well, many coming from institutions with deplorable conditions where the mentally ill were simply chained to a wall in dark and dank conditions for the remainder of their lives.
The Willard Asylum for the Insane would go through a few name changes, but always continued to treat the mentally ill. As the deinstitutionalization of psych centers occurred in America throughout the 1970s, Willard was not left unaffected and by 1995 the State of New York officially closed the Willard Psychiatric Center. However, there are still portions of the grounds being used, most noticeably the Department of Corrections (DOC) continues to utilize some of the infrastructure for ‘shock camp,’ which is basically prison combined with strenuous activities. In addition, the State also continues to operate the Van Dyke chemical dependency treatment center on the grounds and then on the complete opposite side of the campus is the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Child Care Center. Believe it or not, but these kids are probably safer here with all of the guards and officers walking around then kids in your average community daycare center. Because the area is now operated by the DOC, they are very leery of allowing the child care center to conduct tours of the grounds since it is an active prison. This is why tours of Willard are only allowed to take place once a year, and our guide even told us that if the crowds continue to get bigger and bigger, which they have every year, it’s only a matter of time before the DOC will “pull the plug” completely on allowing tours.
After we finished walking through the Grandview Building, all forty of us actually formed a procession of cars to our next location which was the Willard Fire Station. It is important to remember that in its early years, and for the next several decades, the Willard Psychiatric Center was completely self-sufficient, which meant it needed its own fire station. Today the Willard Fire Station still exists and does have one fire engine, but today it has a very limited staff and will also receive aid from neighboring community fire stations.
From the fire station we then went to what is easily one of the coolest buildings in Willard which is known as Hadley Hall. Over the years Hadley Hall has taken on many different functions (one of which we only learned after the fact was it served as the chapel for a few years!). Hadley Hall was primarily used for recreation and leisure purposes, and today looks a bit like an old high school gym. In the upper balcony we were invited to see the still existing film projectors that were used to show movies to the patients. In fact, on the walls of the projector room is written hundreds if not thousands of movie titles that were shown in Hadley Hall, with the date written next to each of when they were shown…I can assure you; I certainly questioned the therapeutic value of some of the films that were shown. In the basement of Hadley Hall there exists a bowling alley, a weight room and several other rooms that today are in a condemned state. There is a lot to see in Hadley Hall and I think we actually lost a few of the 40 people in our group in this building since the crowd seemed a little thinner as we moved on.
The next building is known as Elliot Hall and this building served primarily as the hospital on site for Willard. You may think this would be a really eerie and spooky building to explore, however the State of New York has re-purposed this building to house police officers as they attend mandatory trainings, so most of the building is in good shape. But right across the street from Elliot Hall is definitely one of the most photographed buildings in all of Willard; the morgue. The morgue is a small, decaying building that is set back a bit from the road and is actually a bit inconspicuous if you did not know what it is. There are only two rooms in the building, the first being where the cooler that kept the bodies cold is kept. It is certainly a bit off putting to open a hatch to the cooler and look down the slab where who knows how many dead bodies have been kept. The only other room in the building has one solitary exam-like table in it, and lots of cabinets and machines and is where the bodies would be prepared (or maybe even autopsied?). Needless to say, the morgue did not disappoint!
After the morgue we traveled to the actual building where the Cady Stanton Child Care Center is housed, basically to see what the cost of today’s tour is going to be supporting. From there we then had to drive to our next stop known as Brookside. Brookside is the name of the house where the directors of Willard would live and while it is on the Willard campus, it is a bit removed from the actual psych center. Brookside is literally right on Seneca Lake and at one time may have even been considered a mansion. The house is designed to have room for servants and/or wait staff and is a bit lavish in the rooms where the director and his family would live. There is also a dock that goes down to the lake, giving the director his very own beach. It is nice to see the State was spending their money so wisely!
The last two stops on our tour were at the Bleak House and then the Willard Cemetery. Except when you are in the cemetery you may not even realize it since there are no headstones. Instead, the cemetery is segregated into Old Catholic, New Catholic, Old Protestant, New Protestant and also Jewish, and there is only a small disc in the ground with a number on it identifying someone is buried there. There is no name and no date of death, and most of these circular markers are overgrown with grass and not even visible. This cemetery is actually a point of contention for the families of former Willard patients who want to know where their loved ones are buried. There is a movement to have these records revealed to the families but the State has made no concerted effort to make this happen as of this writing.
As Chris and I got back into the car, we made the decision to drive back in to Willard to attempt to get some more pictures of this one section of abandoned buildings. We drove back to the psych center and saw that we were not the only ones wanting to see this stretch of buildings, so we parked on the street, joined some other people and just walked right in (however, I do not think this would really be allowed if it were not the day for tours). I have come to find out that the stretch of buildings we were now looking at was formally known as ‘The Maples’ and these were the original wards of Willard. Today this stretch of buildings is surrounded by a fence since it is seriously falling apart and anybody that went inside could easily fall through a floor. However, standing in front of these buildings, one can get a sense of the history that exists at Willard and how many people have been affected by it, both good and bad. It was in 1995 that two part-time cleaning ladies were in the attic of a random building on the Willard campus when they “discovered” hundreds of old suit cases of former inmates that once lived there. These suit cases were than catalogued and put on display at several different museums across New York State, telling the forgotten history of the patients that once lived at Willard. I attended this Willard Suitcase exhibit in 2006 and it was from that point forward I became obsessed with learning about Willard and its history.
As we walked from The Maples back to our car, we noticed a very small and simple church across the street. As we got a bit closer, we could not believe what we were seeing. There, right on the walkway leading up to the front door was a sign that read “Free Tours.” We could not believe our dumb luck and of course we then went inside the Christ Episcopal Church of Willard, New York…which is where this current blog post began.