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


History

The Virginia General Assembly authorized the construction of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in 1858. 1 It was determined to construct a central facility for those suffering from mental disorders that would meet the standards 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 beautiful 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 include 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. 5 The foundations for the remainder of the building were set, but construction halted by 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. It 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. 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 most massive 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 was appropriated 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 later, did considerable damage to another wing. The Works Progress Administration completed repairs costing $115,000.

A report from a Mental Hospital Survey Committee noted that the hospital’s conditions were far from stellar because of a lack of beds and antiquated facilities. A similar feature by the Charleston Gazette in 1949 found poor sanitation, lighting, and heat in much of the complex, except for Ward Six, which had been rebuilt following the fire. 5

Plans to renovate the other wards of Weston soon came to fruition. Work included rebuilding the wood floors with reinforced, pre-cast concrete slabs covered with carpet. State 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.”

Despite the renovations, the facility was persistently overcrowded. Originally designed to house 250 patients, it boasted 717 patients by the time the Main Building opened in 1880. It had 1,661 patients by 1938, over 1,800 by 1949, and nearly 2,600 by the 1950s. 5 When the overcrowding issues were the most severe, the same beds were utilized by multiple patients who slept in shifts. 11

The West Virginia Lobotomy Project was initiated at Weston in the early 1950s in an effort by the state and Walter Freeman to use lobotomy to reduce the number of patients and ease overcrowding concerns. 8 11

Decline

Insulin shock treatment and Metrazol, a circulatory and respiratory stimulant, came into use in 1937. It was primarily replaced with electroshock therapy a few years later. It was not until the mid-1950s that tranquilizing agents, a new class of drugs, was introduced 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 had been recognized that there wasn’t enough scientific progress in mental illness research and that psychiatry had long been unprogressive. 4 A report that debuted in 1960 noted in much improvement in the treatment of mentally ill patients 3 because of 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 in 1962. 3 Federal funding was secured for the establishment of community mental health centers that could provide inpatient and outpatient care, emergency treatment, consultation, and education. The goal of the Act was to reduce institutional censuses by 50% within twenty years.

It led to the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities, and Weston’s resident population was gradually reduced by releasing stabilized patients, shortening inpatient stays, and reducing admission and readmission rates. 3 Programs were implemented to mitigate reinforcement of dependency, hopelessness, and other maladaptive behaviors. 2

In February 1986, 2 Governor Arch Moore announced plans for an entirely new mental treatment facility in Jane Lew; the circa 1880 facility would be converted into a prison. After numerous court battles and petitions, the new William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital opened in May 1994. 1

Plans to convert the former state hospital into a prison never came to fruition. The state pledged to transform the vacant state-owned facility into a Civil War museum, and in late April 1999, National Park Service representatives toured the complex. 9 Governor Cecil Underwood pledged his support for such a facility.

The ideas were thwarted after all four floors of the historic Main Building were damaged by 20 off-duty city and county police officers playing paintball in June. It caused irreplaceable damage or destruction of hand-carved walnut woodwork, light fixtures, and a mural in the auditorium. The ensuing outrage from historic preservationists and officials led to the expulsion of three officers.

U.S. Senator Byrd secured a $750,000 Save America’s Treasures grant for rehabilitation work on the closed hospital, which was 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 and explore adaptive reuse options for the complex. Minor rehabilitation work began in June 2001.

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

The West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources auctioned the vacant building 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 to preserve and restore it. 11 One of Jordan’s first acts was to rename the building to Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, its original title. 11 An autumn-themed festival was held on the grounds not long after, which included guided historical 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.


Gallery

Central Building & Wards (Buildings 100, 101, 102, 103, 105)

Central Store / Dietary (Building 108)

Building 104

Building 104 was built in 1946.

Medical (Building 200)

The Medical Center was built in 1953, the Medical Center contained rooms for the electroencephalogram (EEG) and X-ray machines, medical-surgical suites, a laboratory, and a morgue. It also featured a beauty parlor and dental clinic.

Building 201

Building 201 was constructed in 1953.

Building 203

Building 203 was erected in 1949.

Building 205

Building 205 was substantially renovated in 1954.

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.