ONARCHITECTURE- Erasing history: Wrecking ball aiming for DeJarnette?
It's hard to miss the old DeJarnette Sanatorium on the way into Staunton on Richmond Road. Like some haunted, decaying mansion, the Georgian Revival complex of buildings– originally a residential mental institution modeled after Western State Hospital and built in 1932– stands out against a backdrop of modern apartment complexes, a Sheetz gas station, and a Wal-Mart. It's as if the town were afraid of going near it, choosing instead to ignore its presence– putting up streetlights, convenience stores, and gas stations, hoping perhaps the place would disappear or crumble into dust.
But in fact Staunton has not been ignoring the peculiar roadside attraction. The city, known for its historic preservation efforts, has been trying for years to figure out what to do with the old place. The buildings were abandoned in 1996 when the DeJarnette Center for Human Development– which had operated as a public child and adolescent psychiatric hospital since the early 1970s– moved to a new facility and became the Commonwealth Center for Children & Adolescents.
According the Staunton Mayor John Avoli, who also happens to be the director of the Frontier Culture Museum (which took control of the state-owned structures and the land on which they stand after the Center moved), the museum tried for nine years to market the building "with no takers whatsoever."
"It's just an albatross," says Avoli, who adds that its deterioration, asbestos insulation, and concrete construction make the building extremely difficult to work with. "It's unfortunate, but we've finally had to file an application for demolition," he says.
Of course, the DeJarnette also stands in the way of some big plans the Frontier Culture Museum has for the site. In 2003, the museum proposed a $10 million expansion that would level the existing structures and transform the hillside into a less haunting gateway to the city, providing room for a shopping center, restaurants, and a 120,000-square-foot cultural center with an "Extreme Screen Theater," a possible hotel and conference center, and a new 2,000-square-foot gift shop for the museum.
Under an agreement with the state, the Frontier Culture Museum would lease the property to developers, which would generate income for other proposed projects, including an American Indian encampment, a West African farm, and a replica of a hamlet from the 1850s. According to Avoli, the Museum has already leased the property to a developer who will begin construction once demolition is complete.
Frank Strassler, executive director of the Historic Staunton Foundation, finds it disheartening that the Frontier Culture Museum hasn't been able to find a developer willing to preserve the building. Strassler notes that the Preservation Alliance of Virginia included DeJarnette in its Top 10 list of endangered historic sites in Virginia in 2002, and he points out that a developer was found for Western State Hospital, an even older set of Staunton buildings than DeJarnette.
"This is a tough one for me," admits Strassler. "Over the years, we've always tried to encourage and help the Frontier Culture Museum find an adaptive re-use for those buildings, but we've pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that they're coming down."
However, according to spokesperson Susan Pollard, the Virginia Department of General Services will have the final say on whether DeJarnette is demolished, so it could be awhile before the wrecking ball swings.
"It's a long process designed to make sure a building isn't just demolished without being thoroughly reviewed," says Pollard, who points out that reviews by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Arts and Architectural Review Board, and a final review by her office are required before the buildings come down.
Some might think the Frontier Culture Museum hasn't tried hard enough to find a use for the building. After all, Staunton found someone willing to restore the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and much of the downtown area, and as Strassler mentioned, plans are under way to restore the massive Western State Hospital complex. Surely there must be someone willing to preserve a complex that strongly resembles Charlottesville's old McGuffey School, now a thriving arts center.
"At one time we were practically trying to give it away," says Avoli. "There were ideas for it to be a hotel, an art center, even a pet motel. But no one ever made an offer." As Avoli points out, the state chose to build a new mental health facility rather than refurbish DeJarnette because of the costs and difficulty involved in restoration.
Then, of course, there's the unhappy history. As haunting as the old building already is, the mere name "DeJarnette" summons an ugly chapter in Virginia history.
When the sanatorium opened its doors, Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, who directed the equally eerie Western State Hospital down the road, was a leading proponent of eugenics, a dangerous mix of science and social prejudice that called for the forced sterilization of people considered "feebleminded" or "inferior." From 1927 to 1979, over 8,000 Virginians were forcibly sterilized, part of the 60,000 people subjected to the procedure nationwide, a pace that DeJarnette was unsatisfied with.
"Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States– with approximately twice the population– has only sterilized about 27,869 in the past 20 years," said DeJarnette in 1938, a year before Hitler invaded Poland and started his own brand of ethnic cleansing. "The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the U.S. should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum," DeJarnette railed.
And in what has become perhaps his most infamous remark, he said, "The Germans are beating us at our own game."
Of course, the eugenics movement was not unique to Virginia, DeJarnette, or Staunton. It was a philosophy shared by much of the country and the world at the time. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia's eugenics law, which DeJarnette helped to pass, in the forced sterilization case of Carrie Buck, a 17-year-old Charlottesville resident who was picked as the first person to be sterilized in Virginia. In a now infamous opinion, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote: "It's better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind...Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
At UVA, the teaching of eugenics was popular as well. In fact, according to historian Gregory M. Dorr, UVA became "an epicenter of eugenical thought" that was "closely linked with the national movement." Dorr quotes a term-paper from a UVA student in 1934 that reads; "In Germany, Hitler has decreed that about 400,000 persons be sterilized. This is a great step in eliminating the racial deficients." In 1939, one of UVA's leading eugenicists became the dean of medicine.
Still, as far as the insanity of the eugenics craze goes, DeJarnette takes the cake for a poem he wrote about his beliefs, one he often read in public. Here's an excerpt:
Oh, why do we allow these people
To breed back to the monkey's nest,
To increase our country's burdens
When we should only breed the best?
Oh, you wise men take up the burden,
And make this you(r) loudest creed,
Sterilize the misfits promptly—
All are not fit to breed!
Then our race will be strengthened and bettered,
And our men and our women be blest,
Not apish, repulsive and foolish,
For the best will breed the best.
To be fair, the DeJarnette Center existed as a legitimate child psychiatry hospital for years after the eugenics sterilizations stopped. Still, after the center moved, it abandoned the DeJarnette name to escape its legacy.
Given DeJarnette's history, some folks might be forgiven for wanting to demolish the building bearing his name. But others might think that's even more of a reason to preserve it. In 2001, former Virginia delegate Mitchell Van Yahres proposed changing the name of the DeJarnette Center to the Carrie Buck Center. Apparently, however, there were no takers.
Preservationist Strassler points to the U.S. Supreme Court's pro-eugenics rulings. "Do we demolish the Supreme Court?" he asks. "How far do we take this erasing of history?" Still, as far as preserving the DeJarnette buildings are concerned, Strassler admits the legacy is a hard one to overcome. "Can you look past that history?" he muses. "I don't know. That's a difficult question to answer."
Developers in Staunton want to demolish the old DeJarnette Sanatorium to make way for a shopping center and a new gift shop for the Frontier Culture Museum.
Photo-stitch by Hawes Spencer