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Staten Island's Farm Colony Faces Development After Decay

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of a focus on changing neighborhoods, Kensinger visits the site of the New York City Farm Colony on Staten Island.

[The New York City Farm Colony, a popular destination for photographers and graffiti artists, has been marked for development after decades of decay. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

As springtime slowly returns to the city, one of Staten Island's most popular destinations is again showing signs of life. At the New York City Farm Colony, a 45-acre campus of abandoned, crumbling buildings, herds of wintering deer will soon be replaced by this season's visitors. Photographers, paintballers, graffiti artists, ghost hunters and other curiosity seekers have made this their playground for nearly 40 years, climbing through gaping holes in the surrounding chain-link fence to explore its century-old dormitories. But this may be one of their last chances to visit the old Farm Colony.

In October 2013, the NYCEDC and James Oddo, Staten Island's current Borough President, announced plans to develop 46 acres of this campus, transforming it from "the densest concentration of derelict structures anywhere in the five boroughs" into the Landmark Colony—a senior citizen complex with 300 new residential units, which will be constructed in 2016. Five of the eleven buildings still standing at the Farm Colony will be rehabilitated as part of this plan, under the supervision of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which designated this a Historic District in 1985. Several of the remaining buildings will be demolished.

The city has tried to lure developers to this area since at least 1988 with no success. In the interim, it has condemned a significant piece of New York's past to demolition-by-neglect. With roots tracing back to 1829, the Farm Colony has a long and colorful history, which includes its slow evolution from a poor house where inmates worked the land to pay for room and board, into a massive old-folks home with 1,700 residents, and finally into a lawless wilderness, left to rot since 1975. And now, as it is returned to its former life as a refuge for the elderly, the Farm Colony's current entropic era will end, erasing one of New York City's most unique landscapes.

The Farm Colony campus is located just a few feet away from several Staten Island residential neighborhoods. Its ruined buildings are visible from the street.

The wreckage is a lure to many curious visitors. This group of photographers had read about the campus online, and planned to put their photos up on Instagram.

Paintballers have built an elaborate battlefield in front of the graffiti-covered Insane Pavilion, a building which dates back to 1910.

The Dining Hall and Kitchen Building, built in 1914, is one of the five buildings that will be rehabilitated during the upcoming construction.

The interior of the Dining Hall is still relatively intact, with most ceilings and floors still in place.  Many of its windows and staircases, though, have completely rotted away.

Men's Dormitory 1 & 2 was opened in 1904, and is one of the oldest structures at the Farm Colony. Like several of the older dormitories on the campus, it may be demolished.

The building's interior is completely gutted, with no roof, floors, or support. Trees, shrubs and vines have taken root. Two of these ruined dormitories will be "stabilized and preserved in their current state," according to the NYCEDC, "to anchor extensive gardens."

Women's Dormitory 5 & 6, built between 1910 and 1912, may also be demolished, despite being in somewhat better condition than earlier structures.

The second floor of the Women's Dormitory is missing most of its roof and floor, but window frames, tile work, and staircases are still in place.

The most stable structures at the farm colony are Dormitories A, B, C, and D, which were built in 1931 to house Staten Island's elderly, impoverished residents.

These dormitories still contain hundreds of individual cubicles. When the Farm Colony was closed down in 1975, residents were moved to across the street to Seaview Hospital.

The interiors of these four dormitories are still in relatively good condition, despite layers of graffiti, dirt, and debris. The buildings still have floors and roofs, and could be stabilized and renovated, with some effort.

However, after decades of exposure to the elements, it is hard to picture a new generation of elderly Staten Islanders moving back into the same cubicles of their predecessors.

These cubicles look out over a former parkland, complete with destroyed benches and obscured walking paths. The Landmark Colony would create a new outdoor space, including an amphitheater.

In the meantime, the Farm Colony campus continues its unchecked evolution into an urban wilderness, as it approaches the 40th anniversary of its abandonment.
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Farm Colony coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]