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The Willard Question: What’s to be done with this historic property?

  • / Updated:
  • Hayley Jones 

Electricity at the former Willard State Hospital in Romulus, New York has been cut.

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision operated the roughly 400-acre property since the original psychiatric facility’s closure in 1995.

In November 2021, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced six prisons and 27 correctional facilities across the state would close in 2022.

That included DOCCS’ Willard Drug Treatment Campus, which was located on a portion of the Willard grounds. Willard DTC closed on March 10 of this year.

Elliot Hall. Built in 1931, this structure remained in use by DOCCS up until early 2022.

Empire State Development Corporation, another state agency, now operates the property, though DOCCS still maintains the lawn.

Roughly six months after DTC’s closure, a nagging question remains:

What should be done with this property that was, at one point, the site of the largest mental asylum in the United States?

Related: Willard Drug Treatment Center set to close

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

Map of Willard Asylum for the Insane grounds from the east. Willard Landing visible in lefthand corner. Now-demolished Main Building visible in center. Credit: Willard Asylum Scrapbooks, Edith B. Ford Memorial Library. (1874-1894). Willard Asylum Scrapbook, Volume A. Retrieved here.

Patients at Willard

Most patients arrived at the Willard Asylum for the Insane by steamboat. That was the name given to the facility when it first opened in 1869.

Those patients who had traversed Seneca Lake and arrived at Willard carried little, save a suitcase with their most treasured possessions.

Where they came from varied. Many were newly-arrived immigrants, having only been in America for a short time.

Others were patients transferred to Willard from other institutions across the state.

The primary reason for opening Willard, however, was to empty the ‘chronic insane’ from county poorhouses.

Willard Landing. Credit: Willard Asylum Scrapbooks, Edith B. Ford Memorial Library. (1874-1894). Willard Asylum Scrapbook, Volume A. Retrieved here.

Originally comprised of over 1,000 acres of land with about 100 buildings, the facility was an institution in every sense of the word:

Psychiatric in its mission, economic in its contribution to the region, social in its desire to ‘perfect’ the treatment of those deemed chronically insane and therefore unfit to mingle in polite society.

The patients themselves were largely left out of that discourse.

Willard patients. Credit: Willard Asylum Scrapbooks, Edith B. Ford Memorial Library. (1883?-1890?). Willard Asylum Scrapbook, Volume B. Retrieved here.

Of the 50,000 patients admitted to Willard, “at least half didn’t need to be there,” said Craig Williams of the Romulus Historical Society during a recent tour of the property.

The only way to tell members of staff and patients apart was by their clothes, a visitor to Willard once remarked.

In the 19th century, Willard was considered a place of progress in New York’s psychiatric circles.

Activists like Dorothea Dix had long fought to establish ‘lunatic asylums’ across the U.S., and Willard was birthed out of that movement.

The movement centered around the idea that institutionalization was the best method of treatment for the country’s mentally ill and impoverished.

Related: What’s next for Willard Drug Treatment, Butler Correctional facilities?

 Gas House. Possibly the only remaining structure from the original Willard complex.

At Willard, privileges differed from patient to patient.

Instead of being confined to their quarters, most patients were put to work.

Plays, readings, music recitals, lessons and other activities were regularly on the schedule at Willard.

Changing names and changing times

The facility’s name was changed to Willard State Hospital in 1890.

The annual mortality rate at Willard hovered between five and seven percent for years, said Williams on a tour in August.

Many patients who died between 1910 and 1960- about 5,700 people- were buried in anonymous graves on the property.

Willard Cemetary.

An effort to reduce Willard’s patient population began in the early 1960s.

“The federal law called the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health
Construction Act of 1960 provided federal funding for community mental health centers, with the aim of reducing Institutional census by 50% in 20 years,” wrote Seneca County Historian Walter Gable in his 2018 text “The Willard Asylum for the Insane.”

“This law was probably a result of a declining number of U.S. doctors interested in institutional psychiatry and the many changes in the philosophy of treatment and care of the mentally insane,” he continued.

Reducing patient population was accomplished by moving mental cases out of institutions and into residential facilities, like foster or nursing homes.

The facility’s name was changed again to Willard Psychiatric Center in 1974.

In 1975, Willard was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Related: OUR FINGER LAKES HISTORY: Willard Asylum for the Insane (podcast)

By the time Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995, the hospital had only 135 patients, according to Gable.

Roughly half of the facility became the DOCCS-run Willard Drug Treatment Campus that same year.

The status of Willard today

After two decades in operation, the Willard DTC closed in March of 2022.

Today, about 75 buildings on the Willard State Hospital property remain.

Storehouse / Sheltered Workshop. Completed in 1896. At the time of Willard’s closure in 1995, staff discovered the suitcases of roughly 400 former Willard patients in the attic.

Williams, who is also the former curator for the New York State Museum, recently began giving tours of the property to stakeholders.

He said Empire State Development Corporation officials visited the property a few weeks back.

Williams would like to see at least two buildings on the property designated as a State Historic Site on Mental Health by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

He spoke of his concern for the property in wake of the power being shut off.

“These buildings might not be standing by spring,” he said.

Related: Willard State Hospital among ‘Seven to Save’ historical sites in NY

Hadley Hall. Completed in 1892, this building was built to be the center of social activity at Willard.

Ovid Town Supervisor Joe Borst recently toured Willard as well.

“The property has so much potential for so many uses,” said Borst. “The entire site has so much history. I feel recognition of the history of the property needs to be a priority.” 

Preservation of the facility is an immediate priority in order to secure it for future use, added Borst.

“I believe a stakeholder group should be assembled sooner than later by Empire State Development to see what the community wants for the future. This is a huge opportunity and change for our area and we need as much community involvement as possible,” he said.

He also mentioned upkeep of the Willard Cemetary being essential “to continue to honor the over 5,700 people laid to rest there.”

Williams said the same when I spoke to him in late August.

Another view of Willard Cemetary.

It’s certainly possible that none of the buildings will be saved.

If that is the case, then the cemetery will be the last remnants of the once-vast institution where so many lived, worked and died.

The Willard question is one of value: Do we, as a community, see the value of the Willard property exclusively in terms of how it can generate much-needed revenue for the region?

Or, do we also value Willard as a historic site to be interacted with, learned from and preserved?

Input from the local community could prove vital in determining Willard’s future, though the property’s fate ultimately lies in the hands of the state.

North Home. Built in 1929 as a residence for married employees.

This article is the first installment in my series on historic preservation in the Finger Lakes. Know of a site I should visit? Email your suggestions to [email protected].