A state-supported institution tucked away on New York’s Staten Island, the Willowbrook State School was, until finally shut down in 1987, a quintessential example of the epic failure organizations are capable of.
Built as a home for children with intellectual disabilities on 380 acres, the Willowbrook school opened in 1942 and was designed for 4,000 students. But by the time it opened, officials decided the building was needed for other purposes and it first served as a United States Army hospital. In 1947, after a failed plan to turn the building over to the Veterans Administration, the Willowbrook School began to serve its original purpose, but it did so extremely poorly.
By 1965, the school held more than 6,000 students, none of whom were being properly cared for by the inadequate number of staff. Throughout the first decade the school was open, every child brought to live there contracted hepatitis, which is often spread through feces, within six months of admission. The rapidly spreading problem led to controversial studies in which children were injected with the virus and then monitored. After touring the institution that year, Senator Robert Kennedy declared it a “snake pit.” He saw children living in “filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo.”
It took decades, though, before public outcry reached the point where the school was shut down. In 1971 and 1972, the Staten Island Advance published over two dozen articles about Willowbrook by reporter Jane Kurtin and photojournalist Eric Aerts. Television newscaster Geraldo Rivera, then an investigative reporter, was given a key to Building 19 by a staff member who was subsequently fired. Rivera made a name for himself when he hopped the fence and snuck into the building with a camera crew.
The last children, Staten Island natives who were relocated to Manhattan and then returned, were removed from Building 29 in September 1987. Half of the property was transferred in 1989 to the City University of New York. Some of the buildings were renovated, others demolished, and the College of Staten Island (CSI) moved to its new campus in 1993. Repurposing the site literally removed the Willowbrook State School from the map.
While the opportunity to forget the shameful past was a relief for some people, CSI has taken a variety of actions to remember the history of Willowbrook. It preserved and memorialized the Building 19 identification on what is now the School of Education, Building 3S. The Willowbrook State School Collection in the college library contains archival material from patients, advocates, staff and others. CSI established a minor in Disability Studies and a certificate program in Autism Spectrum Disorders. In 2022, the college unveiled the Willowbrook Mile (actually 2.2 miles), an interpretive path with 12 stations that present the history of the site. Contingent upon funding, CSI hopes to restore Building 29 and open it to visitors. Although physically transformed, the Willowbrook State School lives on by these means.