Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ghosts and Greystone

If you walk up Central Avenue, past the homes in Morris Plains, you come to a fork in the road. To the right is Collins Road, a short street with a dog park at the other end.

Greystone now, along Central Avenue
If you continue up Central Ave. you will pass wide expanses of grassy meadow, old trees, several athletic fields and the offices of the ARC and the Interfaith Pantry.
It’s a wide street and a pleasant walk, especially on a sunny day. Many walk or ride their bicycles. Many drive this road as a shortcut to and from Parsippany to points beyond. In the middle of a weekday and you’ll find cars and trucks parked in the shade as people take their breaks, talking on the phone, checking messages, sleeping.

This is now officially Central Park of Morris County, but to me it will always be Greystone.

The park now looks very different from when I first moved to Morris Plains and decided to walk up Central Ave. to the end. I knew what was there. My husband, who grew up in Morris County, had told me about what was once the State Asylum for the Insane at Morristown until the name was changed to the more prosaic Greystone Park.

When I walked Central Ave. past that fork in the road the street was lined with empty, hulking, stone structures, bars still on the upper windows and the first floor boarded to keep people out.

At the end of Central Ave. was the administration building, still in use at the time. I knew the other buildings were deserted, the patients moved to smaller buildings elsewhere on the property, but I still felt as though I was being watched.

Greystone's administration building, one of the ghosts.
What changed was in the 1990s the hospital was so overcrowded and conditions were so horrendous it was ordered shut down and a more state of the art facility built. The state decided to sell what land it didn't need to Morris County for $1 and built the hospital on the western-most edge of the property.
If you walk along Central Ave. now, as I do many days, it is an enjoyable experience, one I’d encourage you to do. The grass is long and filled with wildflowers. Birds - sparrows, mockingbirds, warblers in season - sing from the stately old trees. It is a place of peace.

When you walk you’ll see driveways and lanes that end in grassy fields, where the buildings once stood. Young trees will form a canopy over Central Ave. in a few years. I don’t go to the sporting events but walking around the fields I can tell a lot of work was done to erase those ghosts.

That’s the county property. The property still held by the State of New Jersey and not used for the hospital is very different. At the end of Central Ave. the administration building still looms. Nearby are other structural reminders of the past and decaying roads to them, all festooned with No Trespassing signs.

I do not know what the state plans to do with that land. There was talk - there is always talk in Trenton - that the remaining buildings would be pulled down and the land sold to developers.

At the moment our Republican governor, from Morris County, has said nothing about his intentions toward the property. I would prefer the buildings come down but the fields remain open. You can never get enough open space in New Jersey and there is already too much traffic into my town thanks to several large, recent housing and townhouse developments up the road in neighboring Parsippany.

There have been efforts by some local politicians and private groups to forestall any development while keeping the administration building standing because of its historic value.

But looking up at that building - the parking signs for long-gone officials still up, the lower windows boarded and graffitied, the starlings coming through the broken upper windows - my preference is to pull it down.

It’s too far gone to be useful to anything except the birds and the ghosts.

Update: After the first version of this post, which lacked a headline and this version now replaces, was published on this blog and by the Morris Plains Patch earlier this week I heard from several people, both for and against taking down the administration building. One woman lectured me on "obviously" not knowing the history of the mental institution, which I do know but did not include in the interests of space, and because it wasn't germane to my central point. There are links above that will take you to sites detailing the history, if you are interested. My feeling about bringing the buildings down but leaving the land alone are unchanged, mainly because I don't trust the state of New Jersey in these tough budget times to do anything useful with these deteriorating buildings.