Letchworth Village was both a model for compassionate care and a symbol of institutional abuse — and it helped make Geraldo Rivera a household name.
Before Ileana Eckert became superintendent of the North Rockland Central School District, she worked a part-time job at Letchworth Village in Thiells during high school and college in the 1970s. This community-within-the-community had housed mentally and physically disabled children and adults since 1911. It was one of the biggest employers in the area, and at one time had a worldwide reputation as one of the most progressive centers of its kind. Eckert worked in the cafeteria and remembers a loving, compassionate environment. “The people I knew were so caring,” she says, “and the patients I saw every day felt happy and secure.”
Yet, in 1972, then-local newsman Geraldo Rivera reported in his career-making and Peabody Award-winning documentary, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, that residents at Willowbrook State School — a similar facility on Staten Island — and at Letchworth Village were living in overcrowded, dirty, and neglectful conditions. Such disturbing reports about Letchworth had actually begun as early as the 1930s and 1940s, but the Rivera documentary played a big part in spurring reforms that now govern how the disabled are cared for in this country, and Letchworth Village was slowly emptied of patients until it closed in 1996.
This sad end is in sharp contrast to the institution’s much-heralded beginnings and early years, and to the recollections of most of those who worked there. “People spent their whole careers there, and I think they have fond memories,” Eckert says. “It was pretty stable there, nestled in a caring community. The residents were like town characters, people knew who they were and embraced them.” She calls the Rivera report “a shame. I am sure some of the reports were accurate — who knows what goes on behind closed doors — but I did not see any abuse or neglect. I saw patients hugging attendants. I never saw anyone being mean or nasty. I think it should be remembered as a place where people with disabilities felt safe and were cared for.”
“Beautifully planned and built”
That was certainly the intention of William Pryor Letchworth. A successful 19th-century businessman (his estate in western New York is now the stunning Letchworth State Park), Letchworth retired at age 50, in 1873, to devote his life to his Quaker ideals of philanthropy and the welfare of the less fortunate, especially disabled children. Appointed president of the New York State Board of Charities in 1878, he pushed for a new, progressive model of care that was a radical departure from the high-rise asylums and decrepit almshouses of the time: a self-contained and self-sustaining village of small cottages on a working farm, which would allow residents a more humane and productive lifestyle under the care of the leading researchers and physicians of the day.
Businessman William Letchworth died before the institution opened in 1911
The state approved his plan in 1907 and secured property in Thiells in 1909. Letchworth died before the Village was completed, but lived long enough to know it would bear his name. The first residents were admitted on July 10, 1911. Under the direction of superintendent Dr. Charles Sherman Little, a psychiatrist, the Village grew to comprise more than 130 buildings on 2,000 acres, and was designed to care for 3,000 patients. In 1921, Dr. Little presented an annual report in which he categorized the patients. They were grouped into three then-medically accepted but now-cringeworthy types of “feeble-mindedness” — “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” — based on IQ. According to their abilities, they helped farm, plow, care for animals, cook, sew, and clean, and were provided vocational training in carpentry, shoe repair, welding, and other useful skills. The Village had its own power plant and recreational facilities. The neoclassical fieldstone buildings were patterned after Monticello and afforded abundant sunlight. The power and phone lines were buried. “This facility was beautifully planned and built,” says Corinne McGeorge, an amateur historian and exhibit-maker on Letchworth Village.
Dr. Little and his staff conducted research into the causes of mental retardation, and offered courses to doctors visiting from throughout the U.S. and Europe. Along with the state and its Board of Charities, some financial support came from Mary Harriman, the wife of railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman. She joined its board in 1913 and funded researchers and doctors, as well as a building named after Dr. Little’s chief researcher, Dr. George Jervis.
At its peak, the Village employed about 10,000 locals. “Almost every family in North Rockland had someone working up there, and many in the same family worked in various buildings,” McGeorge says. “It was the top facility of its kind in the whole country. But it became a victim of its own success.”
“We failed them”
Letchworth Village reached its 3,000-patient limit in 1935. New arrivals from places like New York’s Bellevue Hospital overcrowded the facilities and overwhelmed the staff. Despite pleas for more funding, not much changed.
In the 1940s, a photojournalist named Irving Haberman released photographs of naked and dirty residents sleeping on floor mattresses. By the late 1960s, more than 5,000 patients were on site. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the doctors and staff stayed devoted to their patients, who continued to farm and make toys to sell at Christmastime. And the institution remained an important research facility, even helping in the fight against polio. The immunologist Hilary Koprowski created one of the first polio vaccines; in 1948, after he tried it on himself, Dr. Jervis asked him to try it on Letchworth patients (the rules on human testing were, clearly, less stringent than they are today). The vaccine was administered to a total of 20 children; 17 developed antibodies to the virus, and none developed any complications. Within a few years, this vaccine (and others, like those developed by Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk) had tamed this terrible disease.
In the wake of the Rivera report, though, the state began the long, slow process of deinstitutionalization. It moved residents to group homes, phased down admissions, and finally closed Letchworth Village in 1996. The towns of Haverstraw and Stony Point purchased the land and used it to build the Philip J. Rotella and Patriot Hills golf courses. Some of the buildings were converted into the Fieldstone Secondary School (now the Fieldstone Middle School), Willow Grove Middle School, and the Stony Point Justice Court. Indeed, McGeorge became interested in the site’s history as she drove to her grandchildren’s events at Fieldstone. “The buildings are magnificent,” she says. But other structures remain empty and derelict. The contrast illustrates the mixed legacy of this well-intentioned and ambitious but doomed institution.
“Letchworth did not fail,” McGeorge says. “We failed them. I think if the state had provided money to hire sufficient staff and transferred out those who could not be helped, then Letchworth could have continued to provide the service it was doing, in magnificent fashion.”