Dozens of spectators watched under cloud-studded skies as a crew early Monday sunk the teeth of an excavator into an abandoned building -- officially launching the long-awaited demolition of more than a dozen buildings at the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center.
Shortly before 10 a.m., workers from an Indiana salvage firm positioned the excavator outside a former kitchen and dining facility known as Building 123, then lifted the 1-ton machine's arm to a second-floor balcony. It yanked a steel rail off the building, which had stood since 1915, then, like a sledgehammer, swung down and smashed the balcony to the ground.
Within minutes, the excavator had punctured the building's roof, which by noon was reduced to a twisted mass of tangled wood beams.
Though she had for years wanted structures such as Building 123 torn down, Kings Park resident Linda Henninger teared up during the demolition. "I can't believe it," she said. "I never thought it would happen."
The dining facility, in what is now Nissequogue River State Park, was the first of about 18 structures -- including a morgue and power plant -- that will be razed at the 521-acre site by next spring. Dozens more buildings will remain. National Salvage and Service Corp., of Bloomington, Ind., this year won a $6.4-million contract for the job. Local subcontractors were hired for tasks such as trucking and removing asbestos from the buildings.
The hospital, which dates to 1885, was closed in 1996 and transferred to the state parks office in 1999. Years of political wrangling, community debate and uncertain funding delayed demolition.
Deputy regional state parks director Brian X. Foley said buildings such as the dining hall were selected for early demolition because they were in "the worst condition." Trees had grown through the building, and gravity had pulled down parts of the roof.
About 40 people -- including Kings Park residents, advocates of mental health care reform, history buffs and people who like watching large edifices crumble -- snapped photos and videotaped the demolition. Building 123 was completely razed by last evening.
Some, such as former patient Lucy Winer, said the hospital's buildings should be preserved as a reminder of the state's struggles to treat the mentally ill. "I feel like our history of public mental health care is being erased," said Winer, 62, of Manhattan, a filmmaker who last year made a documentary about her experience at Kings Park. "We're not learning from what happened here."
But local residents said the demolition was the first step in transforming a property they considered an eyesore.
"To have something like this staring us in the face all the time was really horrible," said Anthony Leteri, a recycling contractor and vice president of the hamlet's chamber of commerce. "It's not the end. It's the beginning."