The first three hundred years of Manhattan’s history are characterized by a steady northward trajectory of the growing community, a process that did not really come to an end until the whole island was finally filled with city. For much the same reason, the history of many of New York's major public institutions — cathedrals, colleges, hospitals, museums, libraries — has been punctuated by successive northward hops. In a few cases, the farthest leap has proven one step too far, and those institutions have retreated back downtown. In a handful of others, the institutions have achieved escape velocity and moved entirely beyond the city boundaries.
The history of the Bloomingdale follows this pattern. It began life far downtown as an integral part of the complex of New York Hospital, with which it continues to be affiliated to this day. The hospital, chartered in 1771, was first located on Broadway between what are today Duane and Worth Streets. In that building, in 1792, the staff of the hospital began more systematically addressing the growing number of individuals with psychological and neurological disorders found in the city or sent to them from surrounding localities, assigning a physician on staff to their treatment. The effective medical and pharmacological treatment of such illnesses was very much in its infancy, and the primary concern in most cases was simply to control the patients' erratic, disturbing, and sometimes violent behavior. The original approach was not very different from that employed in smaller communities, where a “lunatic” would simply be chained up in a room: the first location of the “lunatic” ward of the hospital was merely a set of cells in the north basement of the building. That the handling of prisoners here was very much in the traditional vein is suggested by a budget line item noting the purchase of a cat o' nine tails for the "maniac keeper."
This approach soon proved inadequate, however, not only because of the continuing growing numbers of inmates and the troubling impact of the cries and moans emanating from their cells on the other patients in the hospital. Moreover, the governors became increasingly concerned that their duty as Christians demanded a more humane treatment of these difficult people. For a time, they experimented with keeping them on the top floor of the north wing, but ultimately a new building was erected for them on the hospital grounds in 1808.
Despite this great improvement, it, too, was soon found to be inadequate, as still more potential cases presented themselves and as the facility grew increasingly less welcome in a crowded urban community, Moreover, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, a new vision of treatment for the mentally ill was also emerging, one sometimes characterized as “moral treatment,” based on a belief that by providing the mentally ill with as calm and restful an environment as possible, treating as much as possible like normal people, and providing them with cultural, educational, spirtual, recreational, and vocational activities, many of their afflictions could be moderated or even cured. Its chief advocate on the board, Thomas Eddy, argued that this kind of program could not really be implemented in a bustling town environment.
In response, the governors of the hospital began a search in 1815 for a new location, one far away from the city itself, in a peaceful, rural setting, initially imagining that it would supplement, rather than replace, the lunatic asylum downtown. The search committee quickly identified a promising space in the future Morningside Heights area, then known as Bloomingdale. In August 1815, the hospital purchased 38 acres of land, located roughly between today’s 107th and 113th Streets and west of today’s Amsterdam Avenue for a sum of $9,348 from Gerard Depeyster. Some of the governors worried that the site, seven miles out of town, was actually too far away, and other options were briefly considered, including a plot of 20 acres in today’s Murray Hill area, but ultimately the Bloomingdale option won out. Then, however, preliminary construction work discovered problems with drainage and with the site's proximity to the Depeyster house. Fortunately, the hospital was able to quickly identify a much more promising neighboring tract of 21 acres on higher ground east of today’s Amsterdam Avenue and covering most of the land between today's 113th and 120th streets and extending west to the Bloomingdale Road (roughly the line of today’s Claremont Avenue), which it purchased from Thomas Buckley in March of 1818 for $10,500. The Hospital was now in possession of a considerable body of land, suitable not only for the erection of hospital buildings, but also for providing a secure and controlled surrounding. In the years that followed, a few additional purchases were made to round out the boundaries.