Letchworth’s True Story on Display at King’s Daughters Library this Month

BY ALLAN GOLDSTEIN

Caption Info: Kerwin McCarthy of the Hudson Valley DDSO with some of the century old documents used to create the overview of Letchworth Village's history.

For the greater part of the 20th century Letchworth Village was a formidable presence in Rockland County, providing a home for the developmentally disabled, and serving as a major local employer.

To commemorate the facility’s 100th anniversary, the Thiells branch of the King’s Daughters Public Library is hosting an exhibit that presents Letchworth as seen through the eyes of noted photographer Margaret Bourke-White. A collection of photos which were shot in 1933 will be on display until the end of this month.

Letchworth Village opened its doors in 1911 and closed in 1996. Although much of Letchworth is now abandoned, its site still serves as the Hudson Valley regional office for the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) and houses several municipal buildings for the Town of Stony Point. The OPWDD supports patients in Orange, Rockland, Sullivan and Westchester counties.

The exhibit is the initial public viewing of this particular group of photos, which features reprints of Bourke-White’s original work. It is the brainchild of Wilbur T. Aldridge who spent 26 years with Letchworh Village and the Hudson Valley Developmental Disabilities Services Office (DDSO).

Aldridge currently serves on the Board of Visitors for the Hudson Valley DDSO, a body appointed by the governor’s office that reports on the effectiveness of the DDSO programs.

He cites two purposes for the Bourke-White photo exhibit: to celebrate the Letchworth centennial and dispel any “myths” that have arisen that the facility was at any time an unsympathetic, uncaring home for its patients.

In 1972 Geraldo Rivera reported on overcrowding and poor conditions at Willowbrook State Hospital and Letchworth Village.

Aldridge said, “At the point the facility closed in 1996, it had received greater monies, been modernized and the sleeping arrangements had a much more hospitable atmosphere. The state learned that additional funding made a major difference. In most of the photos that have been taken over the years the residents are obviously well cared for.”

The photos on display were culled from the archives by Kerwin McCarthy who has worked in public affairs for the Hudson Valley DDSO for the past 31 years. “I am considered sort of the unofficial historian. The articles that are posted with the photos give a more accurate picture of what was going on during those periods of development from 1907 to the early 1950s. Margaret Bourke-White had an interest in this subject. At that point in her career she went from physical photographs to more humanistic work.”

McCarthy notes that Bourke-White was a “pioneering figure in 20th century documentary photography and is famous for her scenes of modern industry, of the Great Depression, and of political and social movements in the 1920s through the 1950s.”

Aldridge added, “I don’t think you can go anywhere where you will find people more caring, sensitive and visionary than the staff at Letchworth Village. They provided an excellent quality of service based upon the resources that they had to work with. They essentially adopted these people (the residents) as family members. Many residents lived to be over 100 years of age because of the quality care that they received.

“It bothers me that there has been a move by some people to erase the years of Letchworth Village from Rockland County, that there is some kind of a stigma. Letchworth Village is a landmark site in Rockland County. And you will never be able to remove it from peoples’ minds. Many people in North Rockland owed their livelihoods to Letchworth Village.”

McCarthy commented, “Many people came to this county specifically for jobs at Letchworth Village. It traces back to Dr. Charles Sherman the first director and Dr. Harry Storrs the first assistant director. They stayed in this field because of the people that they served. That is the history of Letchworth Village, real commitment to people with developmental disabilities.”

He continued, “The commissioner of OPWDD Courtney Burke and the director of HVDDSO Michael Kirchmer had a great interest in recognizing where we came from as an agency and how that affects the positive direction that we are gong. They gave us tremendous support on this project.”

McCarthy added, “Most people don’t have any sense as to the tremendous change that Letchworth represented. It disposed of the warehousing of patients that was going on in prior centuries.”

“People traveled from all over the world to see Letchworth and to gather ideas for developing similar facilities in other countries. It was the first research center to determine the causes and treatment of developmental disabilities and remained the leading example for 50 years. The research that was done here was incredible.”

He concluded, “Letchworth was part of an evolutionary process. It was a real breakthrough and a huge humanitarian effort to return people to their communities. Communities needed to be made ready and today they are.”