ONARCHITECTURE- Dark passages: Haunting DeJarnette buildings get a reprieve

Developers wanted to tear down this complex.PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER

Last October, 29-year old "Laura" (the woman did not want her last name used, for reasons that will soon become clear) attended a family reunion in Staunton and stayed at a hotel near the old DeJarnette Sanatorium on Richmond Road, a Georgian Revival complex of buildings that were built in 1932 and served as a residential mental institution until it was closed down in 1996.

While other Staunton institutions– including the old Western State Hospital– have received spiffy historical rehabilitation, the DeJarnette complex has stood crumbling against a backdrop of modern apartment complexes, a Sheetz gas station, and a Wal-Mart, an odd and haunting presence at the gateway to the Queen City. 

Like many visitors and residents of Staunton, Beth and her family were so intrigued by the old buildings that, after a few bottles of wine, she says, they decided one night to go exploring.

"At that point, my father told me that his grandmother had been a patient there for awhile," Beth recalled, "and that he remembered going to see her in a room with bars. And we walked all the way to the end of the building, where the bars are, and it was like we were stuck in a bird cage."

Beth says her family were all extremely scared, as it was pitch black and they only had two flashlights. She says there were cots leaning against the walls and hospital gowns and papers still on the floor. 

"It seemed like every room had something in it," says Beth. "It was real strange. We found the entrance to the basement but decided we were definitely not going down there, or upstairs either. There was a lot of evidence of homeless people living there, and drug addicts, and we were scared we might bump into one of them."

Beth also wondered if she might bump into something not of this world.

"There are definitely a lot of spirits in that place," she says. "At one point I was the last one out and I felt this cold breeze on my neck and got the chills. We felt like we were on the show, Scariest Places on Earth."

If ever there were a building that could be home to tortured spirits the DeJarnette Sanatorium would be it. Named for Dr. Joseph DeJarnette,  a leading proponent of eugenics who directed the then equally eerie Western State Hospital down the road, the sanatorium oversaw thousands of forced sterilizations of people considered  "feebleminded" or "inferior." 

"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.

And in what has become perhaps his most infamous remark, he said, "The Germans are beating us at our own game."

Still, Beth admits she would love to go back to the Dejarnette building before it gets torn down.

Given the stalled or abandoned status of every development ever planned for the property, Beth just might get her wish.

The nearby Frontier Culture Museum took control of the state-owned structures and the land on which they stand after the institution closed, and has been trying ever since to develop the property. In 2006, Museum director John Avoli told the Hook that the museum had filed an application to demolish the building and had plans to lease the property to a developer who planned to build a $10 million shopping, restaurant, and entertainment center. But that now appears unlikely. 

"Everything is on hold," says Avoli, citing state budget cuts and the bad economy. Indeed, the museum recently took a 15 percent budget cut and had to lay off 15 employees.

Meanwhile, the old buildings continue to attract folks like Lee. 

"We've had a growing problem with trespassers for the last five or six years," says Avoli, reminding folks that there are trespassing notices posted and that violators can be prosecuted for entering the property. 

Indeed, Staunton police officer Lisa Klein, who remembers going on calls to the institution when it was in operation, says the grounds are routinely patrolled, but says officers don't go inside the building anymore because its become too dangerous. "It reminds me of Dark Passages," says Klein, directing us to the website for Dark Passages (www.darkpassage.com), a New-York-based group that explores derelict, abandoned buildings.

Recently, Augusta County resident Shelia Quick was drawn to the old sanatorium, wanting to find out for herself if it was haunted. While Quick says she didn't see anything during her day-time exploration of the property, she says the digital photos she took revealed images of ghosts.

"You probably think I'm crazy," she says. "I was a skeptic about this kind of thing, but after I saw the pictures I was convinced there were ghosts in the building."

Quick shared her blurry photos with the Hook, one of which appears to show a little girl sitting on the floor and holding a doll, but we could not call them clear evidence. In the other photos, we could not see at all what Quick claims to see, which included an old man standing behind a bed leaned up against a wall with children at his feet and a man starring out of one of the old windows.

"If you look at the photos directly on the camera, you can really see them," she claims. 

Sounds like a job for the Sci-Fi Channel's Ghost Hunters. Indeed, it appears the old DeJarnette Sanatorium will continue to remain standing for some time. What do you say guys?


1 comment

Do you write stories about concentration camps being haunted?