Closed in 1983, the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, New York was an integral part of the local community for nearly a century. It treated thousands of mentally ill, disabled, and epileptic patients. Today, most of the hospital’s old buildings are abandoned, but several were sold and opened as private treatment facilities and a NY State minimum security prison.
In 1886, a state commission selected Airy Point on the St. Lawrence River in Ogdensburg to build a “State Asylum for the Insane.” Architect I.G Perry designed it in a “cottage plan,” meaning it would be made up of several smaller buildings rather than one large institution. Construction began in 1888 and it opened two years later. A nursing school opened at the location in 1890.
According to Brenda Sandburg, whose grandfather was the St. Lawrence State Hospital senior business administrator for 37 years, in the 1940s and ’50s the hospital had poultry, dairy, and vegetable farms to produce food for its approximately 2,000 patients. It had its own fire and police departments; a post office and telephone system; carpentry, plumbing, and paint shops; a tailor shop; theater; and a store.
In 1958, St. Lawrence State Hospital became the second mental hospital in the country to have an “open door policy” when Director Dr. Herman Snow unlocked the wards so patients could freely walk the grounds. Few attempted to escape. Those who did wander off were reported by members of the community and promptly returned.
The hospital had a huge economic and social impact on Ogdensburg and surrounding communities, and local residents created the St. Lawrence State Hospital Preservation Society to try to save as much of the institution’s history as possible. The hospital is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places and its beautiful and historic buildings are in danger of being demolished.