Looking beyond the fence and razor wire surrounding C-Dorm, it’s hard to fathom that the top of Mount McGregor spent nearly four decades as a prison.
Lush forest extends miles into the foothills of the Adirondacks until meeting the blue hue of the Green Mountains in Vermont just below the eastern horizon. There’s a sense of tranquility amid the sprawling complex of early 20th century stone buildings that seems more akin to a mountaintop resort than a place to house medium-security inmates.
“Best view in Saratoga County,” said Tom Corcoran, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, during a tour of the recently shuttered correctional facility. “They say if it’s clear, you can see the tower down in Albany.”
Prisoners sometimes referred to McGregor as “Magic Mountain” — guards sometimes called it the “Wilton Hilton.” Both eagerly sought placement at the prison, which functioned from 1976 until its closure in late July.
But McGregor’s unequaled view and sterling reputation as a prison does little to change the quandary state officials are facing in finding an adaptive reuse for the roughly 574,000 square feet of space contained in its 71 buildings. Situated on 86 acres at the mountaintop, the site lacks a gas connection, has a centralized heating facility and derives its water from one of three small lakes on site; the closest connection to municipal utilities lies nearly two miles away.
Originally constructed as a sanitarium, the buildings are laid out for institutional use. The combination of asbestos and the sturdy construction of the buildings would make demolishing them very costly — possibly even more expensive than rehabilitating the structures.
In short, the next tenant or owner for McGregor will need both vision and deep pockets. The formidable challenges posed by the facility has some wondering whether Empire State Development — the agency tasked with marketing the property — will be able to find a new use for the surplus facility anytime in the near future.
The nearby Wilton Developmental Center — another institutional campus once owned by the state — sat unused for nearly 16 years until finding a new tenant. Wilton town Supervisor Art Johnson fears the McGregor site could be in for an equal and possibly longer wait until a new purpose is identified.
“That’s my fear,” he confided Thursday. “The longer it sits, the worse it gets.”
Once the site of a resort established by Duncan McGregor, the 1,196-acre mountain was acquired by financier Joseph William Drexel, who built the opulent Hotel Balmoral. The mountain also holds the cottage where terminally ill President Ulysses S. Grant lived out his final days during the late 19th century.
The hotel later burned, and the land was purchased by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. in the early 20th century, when the massive company decided to build a sanitarium to treat its workers afflicted with tuberculosis. At the time, the notion was that the fresh mountain air and sun would help cure people — the buildings were even built on the south side of the mountaintop to expose them to the prevailing winds.
Metropolitan Life spared little expense in constructing the facility, as evidenced by its chapel. The building was outfitted with a 783-pipe Austin Organ Opus 690, period stained-glass windows and a Madonna and child painting by renowned artist Elliot Daingerfield.
The company had a collection of about 20 buildings by 1919, when a large bequest from late MetLife President John Rogers Hegeman spurred even more development. Researchers studied the disease in a small laboratory dedicated in his name.
Modern medicine helped to effectively treat tuberculosis by the 1940s, and the facility was sold to the state, which established a rest camp for World War II veterans. Later, part of the facility was converted into an area to serve the developmentally disabled.
The explosion of the national prison population during the 1970s prompted state officials to transform the area used for the developmentally disabled into a minimum-security camp. A medium-security camp was opened in 1976, before the prison was established at the top of the mountain five years later.
McGregor gradually became the envy of the state’s correctional system. Aside from its uniqueness, the prison operated a number of different programs that helped inmates adjust to life on the outside.
“It was the most different jail in the entire system,” said Raymond, a former McGregor inmate living in Albany who asked that his last name be withheld. “It was the only facility I’ve been in where they actually trained people to come home — where they gave you life skills.”
After more than a decade in the prison system, Raymond needed help. At other facilities, he continued the behaviors that kept him behind bars — drinking, fighting, and drugging — but at McGregor, there was incentive for him to improve.
Unlike many other prisons, McGregor had scores of volunteers who would routinely visit to help inmate transitional services, recalled Raymond, who stayed five years at the prison before being paroled in 2009.
“It was a magical place,” he said. “I saw some of the hardest criminals come in there, start taking the programs, and their whole lives would change.
Gordon Boyd, a former volunteer, had a similar experience helping inmates for nearly a decade. He still keeps in contact with some of the parolees he helped over the years, which he views as anecdotal evidence of the effective programming there.
“It was really a very open and flexible space where volunteers and inmates alike could create something constructive and helpful,” he said.
McGregor also tended to be less rough-and-tumble than other prisons in the system. Violence at the facility was often at a minimum because inmates rarely wanted to risk getting moved to another prison.
With less violence, McGregor was also the envy of corrections officers working upstate. Many would bide their time at other prisons waiting for a position on the mountaintop to open up.
“When an officer got to know McGregor, he knew he had a pretty good place to work,” said Steve Lewis, a corrections officer who worked 17 years there.
The workforce at McGregor also gave an economic boost to the surrounding towns of Wilton, Moreau and Corinth, where many of the 300-plus officers lived. When the last of the inmates transferred out in April, the McGregor workforce was scattered to other facilities around the state.
Lewis ended up at the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Essex County. His commute to work went from eight minutes last year to more than an hour today.
“Once you drive down the mountain, you don’t look back,” he said of his departure from McGregor, “but it was definitely sad.”