Columbia University’s Buell Hall is currently a gallery space and academic building for the Department of Architecture. Who would have thought this venue of higher education on an Ivy League campus used to be part of an asylum erected more than 200 years ago.
The red-brick cottage located in Morningside Heights at 515 W 116th Street was once part of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in the 19th century but is now known as Columbia University’s Buell Hall. It is the last Bloomingdale Insane Asylum building still standing in Manhattan.
The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was an American private hospital for the mentally ill from 1821 to 1889, founded by the New York Hospital. When it was built, it was the only hospital in the state caring for the mentally ill. It cared for wealthy gentlemen suffering from mental illness, and in 1841, patients who couldn’t afford to pay for their care were moved to New York City Lunatic Asylum located on Roosevelt Island, which is now known as The Octagon on 888 Main Street.
The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum relocated to White Plains, New York in 1889 as the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic now known as the New York Presbyterian Westchester Behavioral Health Center. Three years later, the trustees of Columbia University bought a bulk of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum property, and the last standing building Columbia University kept was the Macy Villa now known as Buell Hall. Macy Villa used to be a private dormitory for wealthy males in Bloomingdale.
Buell Hall is now a gallery space and academic building for the Department of Architecture at Columbia University. “I was surprised it used to be an asylum,” said sophomore Francesca D’Ovidio, sitting on the steps of Columbia’s Low Library, the location where the original hospital building used to be, said.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily an issue in an academic context. I do think that it might be an issue that it is not talked about more at Columbia,” Céleste Tran Ba Huy, a senior year student sitting next to D’Ovidio said. “It would be a nice way to educate on the question of madness and mental health up until today, but especially at the time the building was in place, which was in the 19th century.”
Dr. Nina Harkrader, an architectural historian, who held a zoom called “The Bloomingdale Asylum: A New Vision,” hosted by Landmark West on Tuesday, May 23 explained the significance of this building. “Far from being a scary and shameful place, the Bloomingdale Asylum was a harbinger for a new method of treating mentally ill people with kindness, care and peaceful surroundings,” Harkrader said in the forum. “It was designed as a retreat from the pressures and demands of society.”
Andrew Dolkart, professor of historic preservation at Columbia University wrote a book Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development, about the history of Buell Hall. The large “elegantly Federal style brownstown building,” was ready for occupancy in 1821, Dolkart outlined. “The basis of care was predicated on the belief that the mad were disordered in mind, they were removed from there rational selves.” Harkrader said. “For the first time, it was believed that people who were mad could be cured by certain steps.”
“Nina’s the expert on the Bloomingdale Asylum,” Sean Khorsandi, the executive director of Landmark West said. “She is one of the range of speakers we have that cover issues in the neighborhood that cover points of historical interest—and the whole intent is to get people excited about landmarks—the history of where we are and to get invested in the neighborhood.”
The Bloomingdale Asylum’s Macy Villa is the oldest building on Columbia University’s campus and is a landmark that Khorsandi says is worth talking about. “Columbia seems timeless, like it’s been there forever — but there’s already been something there before it. It’s hard for a lot of people to imagine the Upper West Side as farmland from the rest of the city because it is so built up with streets and sidewalks. It allows people to imagine what came before.”
“Far from being a scary and shameful place, the Bloomingdale Asylum was a harbinger for a new method of treating mentally ill people with kindness, care and peaceful surroundings.” Dr. Nina Harkrader, architectural historian.
“Columbia seems timeless, like it’s been there forever — but there’s already been something there before it. It’s hard for a lot of people to imagine the Upper West Side as farmland from the rest of the city because it is so built up with streets and sidewalks. It allows people to imagine what came before.” Sean Khorsandi, executive director, Landmark West