Letchworth Village began as a dream of William Pryor Letchworth, a noted philanthropist who made his fortune during his youth in the harness industry. He devoted his life to the mentally afflicted in New York State. In 1867 he organized and became the first president of the New York State Board of Charities. 1

Letchworth mobilized public opinion and pressured the Legislature until, in 1907, money was appropriated for a commission to find and purchase a site for an institution for mental defectives to be called the Eastern New York State Custodial Asylum. 2

The commission, appointed by Governor Charles E. Hughes, consisted of William Rhinelander Stewart, then president of the New York State Board of Charities and Franklin B. Kirkbride, a New York investment banker. The commission reported that there were 3250 inmates in four overcrowded institutions for the feeble-minded in New York State. They estimated that the new institution would have to accommodate between 2,500 and 3,000 persons and recommended a site that would provide one acre for each patient. 3

The commission chose a site along the Hudson Valley area consisting of 33 farms totaling 2,000 acres with a number of buildings to provide temporary accommodations. The Thiells location seemed most accessible to New York City because of excellent bus and rail lines. Ironically, the last train rolled through the area in 1957. 4

In 1909 Governor Hughes appointed Frank Vanderlip as president and Mr. Kirkbride as the secretary of the Eastern New York State Custodial Asylum. Immediately Vanderlip pressured the Legislature to rename the institution to Letchworth Village, omitting all stigmatic references. 5

The board secured the services of renowned architect William Wells Bosworth and psychiatrist Charles Sherman Little who painstakinglyplanned the layout of the 130 field-stone buildings, tree-lined roads and farmland that would be known as Letchworth Village. 6

Convinced that nothing could take the place of homelike living conditions and sympathetic human contact, Dr. Little saw to it that Letchworth Village departed from the concept of custodial barracks in favor of one story cottages, a departure which generated vigorous controversy. 7

Several principles were agreed upon during their beginning of the planning stages which were rigidly adhered to. The first was that the line of segregation between the sexes be firmly drawn. Dormitories for girls were separated from boys by a stream running through the middle of the grounds. 8

Other decisions were that buildings should not be more than two stories high, nor should they contain more than seventy inmates; that the basements should not be used for purposes other than storage; that dormitories should be at least two hundred feet apart with sufficient space for each to have its own playgrounds. There should be a separation of groups of inmates of one grade so that they could not come in contact with those of another grade. 9

The six groups of buildings were divided into three areas for each sex. In the center of each group is to be located a kitchen, dining room building and a hall which will be used for gymnasium, dances, entertainments, and Sunday school. Three groups were planned for each sex; one for the young and improvable; one for the middle-aged and industrious; and one for their infirm and helpless. In those groups which are designed for improvable cases there will be a school and industrial building. 10

Letchworth was an entirely inclusive community, the first of its kind, with its own farmlands, waste disposal, power-plant, and watersupply. As a result of its progressive ideas for the care of the mentally disabled, over-crowding and under-staffing quickly became an issue.

From the very beginning, Dr. Little's goal was to make Letchworth Village, "A home, a school and a laboratory". Letchworth was one of the first institutions for mental retardation in the world to establish a research department. 11

Among some of the research taking place at Letchworth Village was the work of George A. Jervis, who won international recognition for his studies of phenylketonuria (PKU, a form of mental retardation). Also, Dr. Hilary Koprowski, the developer of the polio vaccines used in the Congo, revealed that he had become the first physician in history to test a Polio vaccine on humans. Some of the "volunteer" research subjects for Koprowski's live, weakened form of the polio vaccine were twenty "mentally-deficient" patients of Letchworth VIllage. 12

Letchworth Village also has a rich photographic history. Most notably, photographed by Margret Bourke-White in 1939. Bourke-White had a team of electricians who had to install outlets in several buildings to power her lights.

Plagued by overcrowding, a then local reporter, Geraldo Rivera, produced a "journalistic" piece on the overcrowding of the New York State Institutions of Willowbrook and Letchworth VIllage. The documentary called "The Last Great Disgrace", while not entirely objective, was turned into a full length documentary aired nationally on ABC. Rivera was propelled into the national spotlight and in 1971 won a Peabody Award for the piece.

As a result of the public outcry resulting in part from the ABC report, popular opinion shifted towards group homes and mainstreaming of those with mental disabilities. Residents of Letchworth were placed into group homes, the last of the residents leaving in 1997 signaling the closing of Letchworth as a residential facility.

The town of Haverstraw decided to turn off the heat and power to the hand-cut stone buildings in 1997. Much of the village is now a series of dilapidated buildings beyond repair, riddled with stories of abuse and suffering, destroyed by bureaucracy and neglect, destined to become the next victim of suburban sprawl. The farmland at Letchworth has been sold and turned into country clubs and golf courses. Only one of the original six groups of buildings at Letchworth remains open today, as a day-care facility.

My concern is photographing the aura of this village that was once the pinnacle of social progress, now a monument to failure. As destruction looms over Letchworth, I travel with my view camera capturing images that express the mood and feeling of a village built with compassion but filled with a history of neglect, abuse, carelessness, disgrace, tragedy and decay.

 

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1-5, 11, Letchworth Developmental Services 1971 brochure, NY State DDSO, Haverstraw, NY, p3-6

6, 8-10, Letchworth Village: The Newest Institution for teh Feeble-minded and Epileptic, Charles S. Little, The Survey, March 2, 1912

7, Letchworth Developmental Services 1988 brochure, NY State DDSO, Haverstraw, NY, p4

12, The Origin of AIDS, Tom Curtis, Rolling Stone Magazine, March 19th, 1992

 

 

"Your photographs are still mirrors of yourself. Your images are raw, the emotions naked. They are 'expressive' meaning a direct mirror of yourself rather than 'creative' meaning so converted as to affect others as mirrors of themselves"- Minor White*