Secret Labyrinth Underneath One of New York’s Top Schools

Secret Labyrinth Underneath One of New York’s Top Schools

August 17, 2019 96 By Stanley Isaacs


Get ready, I’m about to tell you a story. Are you ready to dive deep into some underground
history and mystery? There’s a network of (not so) secret tunnels
under Columbia University, in New York City. But that’s not even the most interesting
part. These tunnels are part of the original campus
of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. Ready for more?? First, a little bit about Columbia University,
a private Ivy League research institution! Originally established as King’s College
in 1754, it’s name later changed to Columbia College, and then to Columbia University in
1912. Columbia is one of the oldest and most respected
educational establishments in New York City, and in the wider U.S. Because it was founded before the signing
of the Declaration of Independence, it’s among what’s known as the “colonial colleges.” Famous students include John Jay & Alexander
Hamilton. Ah, the class “room where it happens”! Pretty cool, huh? Think of how much American history this school
has seen! It’s amazing when you think about it – this
university has lived through almost every great American conflict and revolution! Columbia has been ranked among the top universities
in the world numerous times. It even has research institutions outside
of the U.S., called Columbia Global Centers. It has top-ranking programs for the performing
arts, business, political science, and philosophy. You need some mighty high test scores to make
it into this place, so study up! Now, let’s review the history of the Bloomingdale
Insane Asylum. Before we begin this fascinating story, it
should be noted that the modern day definition of “sanity,” and appropriate treatment
for what that is, is far different from what it was in the 1700s and 1800s. Mental health was a fairly new field in America
at this time, and treatments were largely experimental. What went on inside these kinds of institutions
was not usually public knowledge. The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was first proposed
by Dr. Peter Middleton of Columbia College (which was then King’s College) in 1769,
and his proposal was granted in 1771. By 1818, The Society of the New York Hospital
had bought 26 acres of land on which to build the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. The Asylum opened in 1821, originally intended
only for male patients. In 1837, a ward for female patients followed. In the beginning, The Asylum planned to take
in only the poor who could not afford, or were not able, to properly take care of themselves
and their mental state on their own. Sadly, many of these patients didn’t have
family who were able or willing to take care of them. But in 1841, twenty years after Bloomingdale
opened its doors, a new asylum opened to take on the role of caring for New York City’s
poorest patients, and the residents of Bloomingdale that were below the set income bracket were
moved. From then on, Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was
reserved only for the very wealthy. Just because it was only housing wealthy patients,
though, didn’t mean that these people were offered better treatment. By 1848, a resident would pay $75 a year to
reside at Bloomingdale. Despite its therapeutic gardens and lovely
walkways, the Asylum eventually declined financially, lost funding, and closed in the 1880s. Different parts of the property were sold
off to various institutions – The Julliard School, for example, and an orphanage…and,
luckily, one of these institutions was also Columbia University, who purchased the bulk
of the land in 1892. So the entire life span of the Bloomingdale
Insane Asylum lasted about 121 years – not as long as you might think for a large-scale
mental institution in the booming, industrial New York City! It should also be mentioned that Bloomingdale
Insane Asylum was built during a time when an effort was being made to make radical and
positive changes in the mental health field. Treatment was becoming much more humane, and
not administered simply for the sake of experimentation or cold, hard science. The consequences for patients’ mental, emotional,
and physical health were now being considered when recommending treatment. Patients were no longer isolated or left alone
– they were encouraged to socialize and could even have visitors. Physical exercise was also put on the agenda
for every patient that was able. The Asylum underwent several expansions, so
there were no crowded conditions. Separate buildings were constructed on property
for doing laundry and other noisy chores, so that the patients could enjoy peace and
quiet. A resident physician, a Matron, and a Superintendent
were always at the ready. Unfortunately, in the end, this effort was
simply not enough. If all of this sounds a bit depressing, I
promise it gets better! Here comes a brilliant moment in journalism! As you can probably imagine, Bloomingdale
Insane Asylum was not without its controversies. The most prominent scandal happened in 1872,
when a New York journalist named Julius Chambers decided to write an article about the true
nature of asylums. Because it was among the newest of its kind,
and considered a top-of-the-line institution, Chambers chose to write about the Bloomingdale
Insane Asylum. But how was he to truly see what asylum life
was like? With the help of some friends, Chambers got
himself committed to Bloomingdale! Now that’s some investigative journalism! Chambers spent ten long days inside the walls
of this institution. After his release, he published a series of
articles in the New York Tribune. His hard and unpleasant work led to the exposure
of some of the not-so-nice treatment that the patients were receiving, and the release
of a dozen patients was set in motion. After a serious investigation by the authorities,
these patients were declared completely sane! And those who were responsible for the mistreatment
of patients were quickly, and sternly, dismissed. Ah, the power of the written word! And by the way – the historical records
of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum are kept in the Medical Center Archives at the Weill
Cornell Medical Library; most, if not all, of the story of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum
is public record! So that brings me to those mysterious tunnels. What’s the deal with that?? The underground tunnels connect most of Columbia
University’s buildings, but the bulk of them are underneath Buell Hall. Today, Buell Hall houses the University’s
French Cultural Center and a few architectural galleries. These tunnels were originally used to haul
coal to the boiler rooms in order to heat the rooms above. The tunnels are still in use today, but not
for hauling coal! They’re a legend at Columbia University,
and hold fascination for students and local urban explorers alike. How could they not?! Explorer’s tip: a map of the tunnels and
their many passageways can be found online! Imagine a group of curious freshmen being
shown these dark and secretive tunnels, perhaps by an upperclassman, their hearts racing and
palms sweating as they’re told the strange and shadowy tale of the tunnels, and how they
used to be part of a completely different kind of institution. The freshmen go through a plain door on the
side of Buell Hall, descend some icy iron stairs, and finally their feet hit cold cement. For the first time they see the pressing dark,
smell the dampness, and hear the pounding silence of the tunnels. Do you have goosebumps yet?? Don’t worry – we’re getting to the good
stuff! Today, the passageways house large-scale piping
and electrical equipment – basically the guts of the Columbia University campus. Of course, University staff are trying to
limit the travel and use of these tunnels by installing fencing and other kinds of roadblocks
and dead ends, but this hasn’t stopped the students! Technically, taking a journey through the
tunnels is discouraged, but the cement walls of the tunnels display generations of graffiti,
spray-painted drawings, poetry, inspirational quotes, Latin verses…even helpful directions
for those traveling through the tunnels and trying to find their way! The tunnels may seem sinister and scary (I
mean, I don’t know that I would go down there by myself!) but they’ve truly become
a sort of haven for artistic freedom and expression, which give the tunnels an undeniable appeal. In fact, they’re also on the bucket list
of many photographers and performance artists. Miru Kim, a graduate of Columbia University,
did an incredible photo series of the tunnels, which looks at the contrast between the graceful
human form and the hard edges of the industrial, man-made landscape. How inspirational is that?! It just shows us that something murky and
uninviting can be turned into something positive and beautiful, and that meaningful art can
come from the darkest of places! SO how about you? Would you take a trip underground Columbia
University’s campus and explore the tunnels of the former Bloomingdale Insane Asylum? What urban legends exist in your city? Tell us in the comments! And if you learned something new today, give
this video a like and share it with a friend! But hey — don’t go spelunking under Columbia
just yet – we have over 2,000 cool videos for you to check out; just click to the left
or right of this video. Stay on the Bright Side of life!