Just Like A Movie

Fifteen years ago, I was on a team evaluating the condition of the building above, constructed slowly in the 1860s as the New York State Inebriate Asylum in Binghamton. At that time it had been effectively abandoned for fourteen years and adaptive reuse was being planned; thanks to the 2008 recession, that reuse is still in the works, although I believe some repairs have been made since I was there.

This was a cliché of an unsettling building at the best of times. The entrance lobby and grand staircase were large and nice (if you like residential gothic) but the patients’ rooms were cells (on the order of six or seven feet by ten feet) and the plan of the main residential wing was a straight line with a single windowless, long, narrow, and high-ceilinged hallway. I didn’t see it clean, but my feeling of unease was based on the design, not the condition. That said, the abandoned and broken furniture, the random trash, a few birds nesting inside, and the lack of any lights made this the perfect setting for half of the horror movies filmed since 1980. You know a building makes people uneasy when it’s been abandoned for a long time and there are no signs of people living or partying inside.

The structure of the building was generally in good condition, which is a testament to the solidity of the original construction. I actually spent the biggest chunk of my time in the attic over the main stair, behind that gable-end wall at the central pavilion roof. The roof clear-spans a large square area here – I don’t remember the original use of the second-floor space below that roof, but it was a single open room, maybe a meeting hall or the chapel – and the technology to do so in the mid-1860s in the US was limited. There were heavy-timber trusses spanning in both directions, with gable trusses parallel to the front facade (and matching that gable wall) spanning between rectangular trusses spanning perpendicular to the front. It was a complicated solution and probably quite difficult to build at the time, but it was still working 140 years later. Being in the attic was less overtly horror-movieish than being in the patient wings, but it managed to be even filthier.

One last note: unlike the circa 1900 picture above, the exterior is now dark gray, stained by close to a century of coal smoke, making the exterior still more gothic.

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