The Boyce Thompson Institute is one of less menacing places I’ve visited. Located in an barren industrial park in Yonkers, with an Applebee’s directly across the way, this abandoned botany institute has been left alone for years, with the city hoping that some derelict will burn it down so they do not have to pay money to either raze or develop it (or so I’ve been told). The institute was initially founded by copper magnate William Boyce Thompson. The land was purchased in the early 1900s with the intent of building a summer home upon it (His Alder Manor still sits across the street from the institute. This, however, was purchased and renovated, now a prominent wedding venue). In 1917, Thomspson went to Russia with the Red Cross – a mission sent by President Woodrow Wilson to keep Russia in World War I and to encourage the formation of democratic governments (all under the guise of a relief mission, of course). With the Tsarist Monarchy recently overthrown in the Russian Revolution of 1917, the city lay in a state of poverty. Citizens were deprived of the basic human necessities, living in the streets, and slowly starving to death as a revolution tore cities apart around them. Deeply moved by what he saw, Thompson returned with a new mission: to help the needy in his own home by finding a sustainable food supply – and thus set out to build a horticulture institute on his remaining land.
There will be two hundred million people in this country pretty soon. It’s going to be a question of bread, of primary food supply. That question is beyond politicians and sociologists. I think I will work out some institution to deal with plant physiology, to help protect the basic needs of the 200 million. Not an uplift foundation, but a scientific institution dealing with definite things, like germination, parasites, plant diseases, and plant potentialities
And shortly after the above statement was released in 1919, Thompson built the Institute 1920. Dediated in 1924, the facility sat on 300 acres of farming land and fields. He felt that if food was affordable and plentiful world peace would soon follow.
Not long after the creation of the institute, Mr. Thompson passed away from pneumonia in his estate across the street on June 27, 1930. Despite his death only 10 years after the conception of the facility, operations continued to run on the grounds and carry out his dreams. With Yonkers’ city taxes on the rise and heavy urban air pollution interfering with research, BTI relocated in 1978 when it joined with Cornell University in Ithaca, NY – and is still operating to this day. While the main building was almost entirely boarded up, anyone passing by could walk right up into the greenhouses, which were mainly a disarray of broken glass and standing puddles. After a bit of poking around, we found an entrance into a basement under the greenhouses. Normally, I steer clear of most basements, but despite being almost entirely pitch black, we could see the literal light at the end of the tunnel, which opened up into the main campus building. After thinking we were geniuses in finding this path, we ran into another urban explorer at an open gate on the ground floor of the building. This is not the first time we’ve discovered these idiocies after the fact (see Land of Oz). Most of the building has been gutted, though, except for an explosion of styrofoam plates (that we later found out was from locals feeding the feral cats). There were some half-hearted “No Tresspassing” signs, but it was obvious that no one really cared who came and went to the area – and was later confirmed by our fellow urban explorer who was local to the area. The main building was actively leased out for use until the mid-1990s, but the greenhouses have been in disuse and left to their own accord ever since the 1970s. In 1999 the city purchased the land and has been unsuccessfully trying to sell it to developers…until last month. Simone Development Companies broke ground for the new project on June 10th. The main building will be preserved but the greenhouses will be demolished. The project will feature an “85,000-square-foot mixed-use complex with office and medical space, restaurants, banking and retail stores” including an “a new 18,000-square-foot addition.” So, basically, it’s going to fall into mediocrity with the rest of the industrial park surrounding it. The project should be completed in early 2017 – so time to visit the site is running out (if it hasn’t already)!
Special thanks to Lomography for giving me a hand developing and scanning my negatives from this trip!