Historic treatment: Staunton commits to Western State

You'd have to be crazy to buy a condo, rent office space, or open up a nice boutique in a former insane asylum and prison, right? Maybe, but developers in Staunton are banking that folks will.

Recently, the Staunton city council green-lighted a massive redevelopment plan for the former Western State Hospital and state correctional facility, a sprawling complex of antebellum architecture, barbed wire, and ghostly park-like landscaping on 75 acres right at the foot of Staunton's downtown.

According to Bill Hamilton, the Queen City's director of economic development, work should begin "at any time" and will include condos, townhouses, office and commercial space, as well as extensive renovations of the existing structures. It's an idea the city tossed around even before the place closed in 2003, says Hamilton.

"We felt our community could not afford to let it sit there and deteriorate," he says. "It presented a rare opportunity to grow our downtown."

The city also plans to modify the nearby intersection with bike and walking paths to better connect the asylum complex with the downtown area.

"We hope it will be a thriving village," Hamilton says, "a place where people can work, live, shop, and enjoy the beauty of the architecture and the grounds."

The development team– selected after a series of public meetings– includes Staunton's Frazier Associates and Charlottesville's Folsom Group, as well as Miller & Associates of Richmond and The Arcadia Land Company of Wayne, Pennsylvania.

It's an ambitious project, one that Hamilton envisions taking "10 to 20 years" to fully build out. "And that," he adds, "all depends on the success of the developers."

Opened in 1828 as Western Lunatic Asylum, the facility carried that name until 1894. The infamy of the place probably peaked in the 1930s when, under longtime director Joseph S. DeJarnette, many so-called "unfit" patients were involuntarily sterilized. In its final years, the site was home to the Staunton Correctional Center, a medium-security state prison.

At first glance, the abandoned complex looks more like the setting for a Stephen King novel than a commercial center, an image that developers are trying to dispel by focusing on the asylum's early 19th-century incarnation as a "resort-style" treatment facility– without the cells and physical restraints, of course.

According to historians, Western State is one of Virginia's architectural treasures. The recently discovered architectural drawings of Thomas Blackburn, a Thomas Jefferson protégé who worked at UVA and who designed many of the hospital's buildings, gardens, porticos, and colonnades, offer some interesting insights into early 19th century asylum construction. For instance, Blackburn worked closely with the hospital's director, Dr. Francis Stribling.

The collaboration resulted in structures, gardens, and small additions that would contribute architecturally to treating the mentally ill. "This is the only known collaboration of physician and architect," says architectural historian Bryan Green, "to construct and implement such a marriage of treatment technique and physical setting."

In addition to terraced gardens, where patents were encouraged to plant flowers and take long walks, some of the buildings had elaborate roof walks to provide mountain views. Inside, details like aligning the iron bars on the windows with the mullions, the installation of a beautiful spiral staircase ascending toward a domed cupola, and the elegant molding and glass work around doors and windows were meant to create an atmosphere of elegance and beauty that would aid in the healing process. The goals that Blackburn and Stribling had for the asylum, Green says, clearly rested on Jefferson's idea that architecture could inspire an idea or philosophy.

In its early days, the asylum functioned as a kind of resort, according to Green. "The idea was that people would do whatever they did before illness, and by doing so in a beautiful, calm setting, they would return to their earlier, less-troubled, state."

Of course, physicians at the time were generally at a loss about how to treat serious mental illness. For example, people were often admitted to asylums for such symptoms as "religious excitement" and something called "hard study." Stribling was a follower of the "moral therapy" movement of the time, which involved something akin to modern childrearing techniques: treat the mentally ill with respect, and they would in turn respect themselves and be easier to manage. Before Sigmund Freud interpreted our dreams and psychiatry introduced the couch– not to mention a host of psychotropic drugs– these grand asylums were the only answer to treating psychic ills.

In the long run, however, the asylum model of care turned out to be disastrous. Soon after the Civil War, asylums like Western State became warehouses for society's outcasts, a dynamic that led to overcrowding and patient mistreatment. In addition to using ankle and wrist restraints, physical coercion, and straitjackets, asylum physicians like DeJarnette experimented with drugs and sterilization. Much later, physicians also experimented with electro-shock therapy and performed lobotomies. (Think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)

By the early 20th Century, asylums were seen as hellish, god-forsaken places, more like prisons than hospitals. As already mentioned, the State of Virginia actually converted Western State into a prison when it closed as a hospital in the 1970s. And it wasn't until the late '70s and '80s that the last of these asylums were finally closed and replaced by more community-based and private practice solutions to treating depression and mental illness.

Most people would agree that psychotherapy has come a long way since the early 19th century. Still, the idea of coping with stress, anxiety, or depression by retreating to the beautiful sanctuary of the Western State of Blackburn and Stribling's time has its modern appeal.

Instead of weekly visits to a therapist, or various doses of Prozac, Effexor, and Zoloft, imagine simply leaving society for a while to walk the grounds, tend the gardens, and live in the healing influence of the architecture. Maybe Jefferson was on to something.

This is the latest in an occasional series of stories about the architectural treasures of Staunton.


Checkered past: developers plan to turn this shuttered mental asylum-prison into Staunton's 6th historic district.

Healing design: details like this spiral staircase were meant to create an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.