In 1876, what became known as Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, designed by architect Samuel Sloane in the Second Empire Baroque style, opened in Morristown, New Jersey. With an estimated cost of $2.5 million it was one of the nation’s most expensive asylums. The massive facility operated for more than 130 years before shuttering in 2008. Now, after six development teams offered proposals to reuse the facility, the state has announced plans to raze the structure with $50 million in taxpayer funds, leaving preservationists scratching their heads.
Public outcry forced the state to abandon initial plans to sell the hospital and its remaining 90 acres to a developer. “It looked like they’d get rid of the building and throw thousands of suburban townhomes on the property,” said John Huebner, president of Preserve Greystone (PG), a volunteer organization established in 2009 to advocate for the facility’s adaptive reuse.
“From a cultural standpoint, Greystone has endured seven generations,” said Margaret Westfield, advisor to PG and former State Historic Architect of New Jersey. “You’d be surprised with the cultural associations that go along with this building.” For example, Woody Guthrie was a resident of Greystone’s Ward 40 in the 1950s.
New Jersey subsequently issued a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) from developers to reuse the facility, generating six responses from teams around the country. “Several of the proposals are promising. At least two are completely self-sustaining,” said Westfield. “All of these organizations have track records. It’s not like they’re coming out of the blue.”
Architectural photographer Christopher Payne visited Greystone before it closed during a national tour of abandoned asylums for his book on the subject. “This was the first one I saw and it kind of changed everything. I couldn’t believe how big it was,” he told AN. “What’s special about Greystone is its axial approach—it’s not a meandering landscape like at [Richardson’s asylum in] Buffalo. The main building looms up on its hill with its tower.” The direct tree-lined boulevard helps to emphasize the size of the 678,000-square-foot building, which operated its own post office and maintained its own zip code.
“Until recently, parts of Greystone were heated and well lit with people working in their offices,” said Payne. “You’d open a door onto a ward and beyond that threshold it is blanket gray and cold—the temperature would drop 30 degrees—and the floor is covered in paint chips. I’d never seen that kind of contrast between the living and the forgotten.”
This August, the state announced new plans to demolish the building next spring. “We were kind of flabbergasted,” said Huebner. “It turned out they hadn’t even called any of the developers back to talk about the proposals. We don’t know what is informing their decision and what has changed.” The state Treasury Office overseeing the project did not respond to AN’s request for comment.
“Greystone has been a major presence in our community for a very long time,” said Huebner. “We showed people what was there and people were very interested. People just don’t like waste.” Preserve Greystone is requesting a more transparent process and a reexamination of the redevelopment proposals. “It’s just insane to give up this landmark when people want to reuse it,” added Westfield. “It’s like the state is looking for an excuse to demolish the building rather than try to reuse it.”