April 20, 2011 -
The New York City Farm Colony is one of the most popular ruins on Staten Island. Although closed to the public and completely surrounded by chain link fences, this 70 acre site has many visitors throughout the year. On weekends, couples can be seen strolling along its abandoned streets. Paintball enthusiasts have built an elaborate homemade obstacle course on its grounds, including sniper roosts in the trees. Graffiti artists have entered into every building and covered nearly every surface with thousands of tags. Inside some buildings, visitors have even built makeshift bedrooms.
These visitors, alongside decades of city neglect, have left the buildings on the Farm Colony campus wide open to the elements. About a dozen structures still stand on the campus, ranging from a huge four story dining hall to a single small greenhouse. All of these structures are gutted shells, their interiors covered in dirt and full grown trees. The oldest structures in the Farm Colony - Dormitory 1 & 2 - date back to 1904 and are collapsing under the weight of decay, their roofs entirely missing.
Staten Island has not been kind to its many abandoned hospital buildings. A landmarked 1842 building rots at Bayley-Seton Hospital. The endangered 1889 Smith Infirmary has never been landmarked and is slowly falling to pieces. The ruins of the 1899 Seaside Hospital, which was demolished in 1964 by Robert Moses, are being washed away by the tides on New Dorp Beach. And directly across the street from the Farm Colony, many of the historic buildings on the Seaview Hospital campus have been left to decay in dense overgrowth.
Surprisingly, both the Farm Colony and Seaview are a part of Staten Island's first official historic district - the 320-acre "New York City Farm Colony - Seaview Hospital Historic District" - which was designated in 1985 by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission's designation appears to have saved the Farm Colony buildings from outright demolition, but has done little else to preserve them, other than to create a detailed report on their history (PDF). This report traces the origins of the Farm Colony back to the Richmond County Poor Farm, an 1829 "institution for the able-bodied indigent." The poor farm was renamed the New York City Farm Colony at the turn of the century, and continued to house impoverished "inmates" who were expected to "pay for their board twofold by their labor, working on the farm raising vegetables, not only for themselves, but for other unfortunates."
Although the farm was shut down in 1925, the Farm Colony campus continued on as a home for indigents with "the following cases of dependency: senility, destitution, paralysis, crippled, epileptic, blind, dumb, deaf, deaf and dumb, and cancer." At its peak, this institution housed 1,700 men and women, and was "a haven for old people," including well-known Staten Island photographer Alice Austen, who died in poverty in 1952 at "the local poor house, the Staten Island Farm Colony," according to one biography.
The Farm Colony complex was closed in 1975 and its patients transferred across the street to Seaview Hospital, which continues to provide "long term care" to "vulnerable populations." The buildings of the Farm Colony were sealed, but by 1991 the campus was "developing into a tangled jungle" with "occasional vandalism," according to the NY Times and by 1999, the Preservation League of New York State reported that the Farm Colony was facing "demolition by neglect" and that its "buildings remain open to the elements and the city has no plans for their future reuse."
Several plans to redevelop the campus have failed to materialize. In 2005, the Municipal Art Society reported on a study that had established "stabilization plans, and conceptual reuse" for the buildings, and in 2010, the Staten Island Advance reported the Farm Colony had been mentioned as a possible site for a college campus. Nothing has come from these reports, and despite their acknowledged historic value, these buildings seem fated to be destroyed by the elements, much like Admirals Row. When considered alongside other abandoned New York City landmarks, including the 68th Police Precinct and Bayley-Seton's Victim Services building, the Farm Colony's derelict state questions the purpose and the mission of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.