Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

Medical / West Virginia

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, later known as Weston State Hospital, is a former mental hospital in Weston, West Virginia.


History

The construction of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was authorized by the Virginia General Assembly in 1858. 1 It was determined to construct a central facility for those suffering from mental disorders that would meet the standard established by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride of Philadelphia in his 1854 publication on the subject of the treatment of such individuals. 2

Kirkbride advocated for a state hospital that could hold no more than 250 patients in a building laid out in a linear arrangement with three sets of wings extending from each side of an administration building surrounded by attractive scenery. 2 The central building and wings would be three stories high with a full basement, with the wards each containing a parlor, dining room, clothes room, bathroom, and water closet. Each bedroom would contain just a single bed.

The building was designed in the Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival styles by Baltimore architect Richard Snowden Andrews. 1 Construction began in late 1858 on a 40-acre tract next to the West Fork River with work initially conducted by prison laborers. As the exterior consisted of native blue sandstone quarried from the riverbed and the nearby hills of Lewis County, skilled stonemasons were brought in from Germany and Ireland. 5

The southern one-story was under roof by July 28, 1860, and the south wing was nearly finished by early 1861. The foundations for the remainder of the building were set, but all construction halted by the outbreak of the American Civil War. Following its secession from the United States, the government of Virginia demanded the return of the hospital’s unused construction funds for its defense. Before it could occur, the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry seized the money from a local bank and delivered it to Wheeling. The money was put towards the establishment of the Reorganized Government of Virginia, which sided with the northern states during the war.

West Virginia Hospital for the Insane

The Reorganized Government appropriated money to resume construction of Trans-Allegheny in 1862, and following the admission of West Virginia as a state on June 20, 1863, the hospital was renamed the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. Construction of the Main Building of the asylum resumed on July 20 and the first patients were admitted in October 1864. The 200-foot central clock tower was finished in 1871, 7 but it soon needed reinforcements as the tower and building below was showing signs of stress from the weight of the clock. Additional wings were completed in 1872 and 1873, and the Main Building was completed in 1880 at the cost of $725,000. At 1,295-feet in length, it was the largest structure built from hand-cut stone in the United States and second largest in the world after the Kremlin. 9 11

The Main Building, flanked by two double-sectioned wings with 2½-foot thick walls built of sandstone backed with brick, included 921 windows and 906 doors, a full basement with door floors, and a reinforced concrete floor for the central administration building. A ballroom on the third floor of the was utilized for “cotillons” and “chautauquas” by the local community and hospital.

The Hospital for the Insane was intended to be self-sufficient, 6 and included a farm, dairy, water plant, and four cemeteries spread over 666 acres. 1 A gas well was drilled on site in 1902 to provide the basis for cleaner and more reliable heat for the campus. 5

Weston State Hospital

The West Virginia Hospital for the Insane was renamed to Weston State Hospital in 1913.

A major fire ripped through Ward Six in the south wing of the Main Building on October 3, 1935, causing the cupola and part of the roof to collapse. Two smaller fires, set by a patient, did considerable damage to another wing not long after. The $115,000 in repairs to the wings were funded by the Works Progress Administration.

A report from the Mental Hospital Survey Committee noted that the hospital’s conditions were far from stellar due to a lack of beds that forced some patients to sleep in cots, rooms had not been painted or freshened in many years, and facilities that had not been upgraded to contemporary standards. Reports by the Charleston Gazette in 1949 found poor sanitation, dim lighting, and insufficient heat in much of the complex, although the south wing, which had been rebuilt following a fire, was comparatively luxurious. 5

In response, plans to renovate the remainder of Weston were formed. Senator Robert C. Byrd visited the campus on February 23, 1951, and remarked that the “entire northern wing had been gutted” and that “work was progressing on all fronts.” The interior was rebuilt with reinforced pre-cast concrete slabs for flooring, and new carpeting and furnishing was installed throughout.

Originally designed to house 250 patients, the Hospital for the Insane was grossly overcrowded with 717 patients by 1880; 1,661 in 1938; over 1,800 in 1949; and nearly 2,600 by the 1950s. 5 When the overcrowding was most severe, the same beds were used by multiple patients, sleeping in shifts. 11 The West Virginia Lobotomy Project was initiated at the hospital in the early 1950s as an effort by the state and Walter Freeman to use lobotomy to reduce the number of patients and ease overcrowding concerns. 8 11

Decline

Mental disease caused by syphilis was treatable with arsenicals and malaria with considerable success. After Penicillin was introduced, the disease was largely controlled. 3 Insulin shock treatment and Metrazol came into use in 1937, replaced with electroshock therapy a few years later. It was not until the mid-1950s that a new class of drugs, referred to as tranquilizing agents, was introduced; they were used in conjunction with individual and group psychotherapy.

The Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health, working along with the American Psychiatric Association, the Council on Mental Health of the American Medical Association, and 20 other organizations, began work on a report to analyze the mental health care system in the United States in 1955. 4 Much of the information that was gathered had never been organized in a national database.

It was recognized that there wasn’t enough scientific progress in research of mental illnesses, that a cultural lag in the treatment of the mentally ill existed, and that the teaching of modern attitudes and methods in psychiatry had long been unprogressive. 4 The report, when released in 1960, 3 noted that there was much improvement in the treatment of the mentally ill, primarily from increased knowledge of the psychological issues derived from psychodynamic psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and the results of physiological treatment methods, including electroshock therapy, insulin shock, surgery, and tranquilizers. 2

The report led to the passage of the Mental Retardation Facilities & Community Mental Health Construction Act of 1962. 3 Federal funding was secured so that community mental health centers could be established, which could provide inpatient and outpatient care, emergency treatment, consultation, and education. The goal of the Act was to reduce institutional censuses by 50% by 1982.

It led to the start of the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities, or the process of replacing long-term psychiatric hospitals with community mental health services. 2 Weston’s resident population was gradually reduced by releasing stabilized patients, shortening inpatient stays and reducing admission and readmission rates. Programs were implemented to reduce reinforcement of dependency, hopelessness and other maladaptive behaviors.

In February 1986, 2 Governor Arch Moore announced plans for a new mental treatment facility to replace the circa 1880 complex. The existing hospital would be converted into a prison. A groundbreaking ceremony was held for a mental health complex in Jane Lew, but after numerous court battles and petitions, the new William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital opened in May 1994 west of Weston. 1

Weston State Hospital was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1990. 11

Planning to convert the vacant state-owned hospital into other uses began in late 1998, and National Park Service representatives toured the site in late April 1999. 9 Governor Cecil Underwood pledged his support for a proposal to convert the facility into a Civil War museum, but the plan was thwarted after all four floors of the Main Building were damaged by 2o off-duty city and county police officers playing paintball in June. It caused irreplaceable damage or destruction hand-carved walnut woodwork, light fixtures, and to a mural in the auditorium. The ensuing outrage from historic preservationists and officials led to the dismissal of three officers.

Senator Byrd and the West Virginia Congressional Delegation secured a $750,000 Save America’s Treasures Grant for rehabilitation work on the closed Weston State Hospital complex in 1999. The funds were matched by an equal amount from the state legislature. Governor Cecil B. Underwood created the Weston Hospital Revitalization Committee in 2000 to manage the grant with rehabilitation work beginning in June 2001. The Weston Hospital Revitalization Committee was formed soon after to explore adaptive reuse options.

Three small museums devoted to mental health, military history, and toys were opened on the first floor of the Main Building 2004 but were soon forced to close because of fire code violations. 7

The shuttered hospital was auctioned by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources on August 29, 2007. 10 Bidding started at $500,000 and Joe Jordan, an asbestos demolition contractor from Morgantown, was the highest bidder, paying $1.5 million for the complex with the intention of preserving and restoring it. 11

One of the first acts was to rename the building to its original title Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. 11 In October, a Fall Fest was held on the grounds of the of Weston, which included guided historic and paranormal tours.

As of 2019, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum offers a variety of tours and experiences, including heritage, paranormal, and photography events, ghost hunts, and the annual Asylum Ball.

footprint3


Gallery

Main Building

Submitted by Taylor

Potters Field


Sources

  1. Swick, Gerald D. “Weston State Hospital.” In Ken Sullivan (ed.). The West Virginia Encyclopedia. Charleston: West Virginia Humanities Council. 2006. p. 779.
  2. Pitts, Carolyn. National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. Hudson River State Hospital, Main Building. 9 Feb. 1989. (NR 94NR00622)
  3. Doran, Robert E., MD. HISTORY OF WILLARD ASYLUM FOR THE INSANE AND THE WILLARD STATE HOSPITAL. 1978. Article.
  4. Bartemeier, Leo H., and Kenneth E. Appel. “Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health, Inc.” The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 160, no. 5, 4 Feb. 1956, pp. 392-93.
  5. Hospital History.” Weston Hospital Revitalization Committee, 2005.
  6. Historic West Virginia: The National Register of Historic Places. West Virginia Division of Culture and History: State Historic Preservation Office. 2000. pp. 74–75.
  7. Hospital News.” Weston Hospital Revitalization Committee, 2005.
  8. Johnson, Jenell. American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History. University of Michigan Press. pp. 152, 162, 164–165, 168–169.
  9. “A Town Sees Red Over Police Vandalism.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 20 Jun. 1999.
  10. “Morgantown contractor buys old Weston State Hospital.” Charleston Daily Mail, 29 Aug. 2007.
  11. Barnes, Jim. “In West Virginia, a moving, respectful tour of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.” Washington Post, 25 May 2018.