A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
The Once and FUTURE Castle
September 24 marks the Birth and Re-birth of a Binghamton Landmark

Big things were happening up on the hill at the old Lyons Farm, just east of Binghamton. For months there had been a lot of digging and hauling going on up there. Now there was a big hole in the ground. Piles of cut stone and bricks were scattered about, large wooden planks served as temporary catwalks over mud-holes and rough terrain. It was September 1858, and a landmark construction project was underway.

Above: Laying of the Cornerstone, New York State Inebriate Asylum, September 24, 1858

The New York State Inebriate Asylum overlooking the Susquehanna River

A massive structure was to be built in the style of a European castle. The brain child of Joseph Edward Turner, nothing like it had been seen in this area before. The building would be magnificent, but the purpose of the building - that was revolutionary.

Born in Bath, Maine, in 1822, Turner as a young man took an interest in medicine and focused his efforts on the study of inebriety, or alcoholism. The concept of inebriety as a disease, and as such, medically treatable, was somewhat radical at the time.

Drawing from recent changes in treatment of the mentally ill, Turner saw a need to create a facility dedicated to the medical and moral treatment of inebriety. It was to be the first such institution in this country. By 1854 he had convinced the state legislature to charter what would eventually be called the New York State Inebriate Asylum.

Working out of New York City, over the next four years he marketed the concept across the state, collecting contributions, scouting out sites, and recruiting the necessary talent to start construction. Turner personally selected the young architect Isaac Perry to design the structure, and with the May 1858 donation by its citizens of the 252-acre Lyons Farm, Binghamton was selected as the location.

Ground was broken at the site in June, and in September the time had come to place the cornerstone, marking the official start of construction. It was time to celebrate, and September 24 would be the day.

Turner sent letters of invitation to officials and dignitaries around the country. He held meetings at the Exchange Hotel on Court Street with a committee of Binghamton citizens to plan the celebration.

A large tent would be erected at the site. There would be speeches and a band would entertain with popular music. A tin box would serve as a time capsule to be set in the cornerstone, filled with an odd assortment of mementos, ranging from newspapers and medical journals of the day, to a Native American "Pipe of Peace", a Japanese coin, and a specimen of the historic Atlantic Telegraph Cable. Finally, a large contingent of the Free and Accepted Masons would conduct a formal ceremony to place the cornerstone.

On September 22 Turner boarded the two o'clock train for Binghamton. The 8-hour trip with its $5.20 fare had become routine over recent months. But this visit would be different. It would be the culmination of everything Turner had worked for, the crowning glory of his professional career. As it turned out, at age 36 this would be the high-point of Turner's life, and although he could not have known at the time, it would mark the beginning of his downfall.

The day long ceremony experienced a huge turnout in spite of the weather (as Turner would write in his journal that day: "Ceremony. Rained cats and dogs".)

There were six speeches under the tent, each one praising the humanitarian ideals of the Inebriate Asylum. President James Buchanan, unable to attend, sent his comments to Turner: "This undertaking commends itself to the warm approbation of every friend of humanity, and every lover of his country." The renowned political leader and orator Edward Everett was one of the last speakers, concluding: "as fast as these walls can be erected, you will have a similar institution in every civilized country in the world."

Things didn't quite work out as planned. There were financial problems from the start causing ongoing construction delays. It was a full six years after the laying of the cornerstone that Turner was installed as Director of the institution and the first patients were admitted. Even then only a portion of the building was complete. Just three years later, with continuing financial problems, after a suspicious fire that nearly destroyed the north wing, and amid accusations of mismanagement, Turner was forced to resign.

After two subsequent directors, continued financial problems and accusations of mismanagement, and yet another suspicious fire, in 1879 Governor Lucious Robinson declared the inebriate asylum experiment a "complete failure" and recommended conversion of the facility to an "asylum for the chronic insane."

The facility was closed and two years later reopened as a state hospital. For the next 110 years it served as one of New York's leading mental health institutions.

The New York State Inebriate Asylum was the result of one man's extraordinary drive and passion. It was the product of this nation's humanitarian attitude toward inebriety and its treatment.

Unfortunately, due to under-funding, conflicting political agendas, and a basic flaw in concept, the institution as intended lasted only 15 years.

But the building itself - that's another story. Today Binghamton's Castle continues to stand as proud and majestic as ever, it remains structurally sound, and is one of the most magnificent buildings to be found in the Southern Tier.

Closed since 1993, earlier this year it was announced that funds have been secured to begin the repair and restoration of the building. This, in preparation for future reuse of the Castle by SUNY Upstate Medical University.

September 24, 2008, marks the 150th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone. On that day another commemoration ceremony will take place up on the hill. As before, a large tent will be set up, a few speeches will be made, a band will play music of 1858, and a contingent of the Free and Accepted Masons will conduct a formal ceremony - this time to rededicate the building for its new use.

It will be a great day for Binghamton. An historic milestone, the birth of Binghamton's Castle will be remembered and honored. At the same time a new milestone will be celebrated marking the beginning of a new era for this magnificent structure. On September 24 on a hill outside Binghamton, history will be remembered - and history will be made. Let's hope for good weather. On second thought, it might be nice if it rains cats and dogs.

See the 150th Anniversary Ceremony
More About The Castle