Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
The Haunting History of the Trans-Allegheny Asylum
Upon looking at the Trans-Allegheny Asylum, you may notice the staggering clock tower that stands at 200 feet tall that comes from the center of the building. It is a monumental structure, the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in North America, it is 242,000 square feet that is divided over four floors, it is also 1,296 feet long and has 921 windows and 906 doors. The walls are two-and-a-half feet thick, thick enough to muffle any screams on the other side of the wall.
Dorothea Dix, known as a remarkable mental health crusader, awoke a reformist wave that was making its mark across America. The Virginia General Assembly got a sum of 125,000 dollars to build an asylum in the early 1850s, they ended up purchasing 279 acres along the West Fork River.
Dr. Thomas Krikbride was hired as an advisor for the asylum, his thinking dominated the physical design of asylums and care for the mentally ill in America for half a century. Along with Dr. Kirkwood, a renowned architect, Richard Swoden Andrews, was hired to design the Gothic blue sandstone structure while following the "Kirkwood Plan," this was creating long wings in a shallow V formation, this allowed all patients to have access to unobstructed sunlight and fresh air.
Dr. Kirkbride was a humanist, he was the first doctor in the United States to recognize mental illness as a disease that could be cured, he stated that those who were diagnosed with mental illness "are not disabled from appreciating books, nor from enjoying many intellectual and physical comforts," and he created a plan for institutionalization, he wanted to create an environment where the patients would be treated with the utmost dignity, compassion, and respect.
Construction officially began in 1858 on the main structure, this was known as the "Kirkbride Building," but construction was halted when the Civil War broke out in the April of 1861. Virginia was deeply divided culturally and economically, most people in the western part of the state were Appalachian mountain folk, not plantation owners, they didn't have any need for slaves and were generally unable to afford them.
The June of 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union, this threw it into the bloody struggle. West Virginia seceded from Virginia, and it remained in the Union. The war soon marched itself into Weston on June 30th, 1861. The Ohio Infantry, who was led by Colonel Erastus Bernard Tyler, invaded the town and to round up Confederate sympathizers. Soon, Tyler's underlying motive was revealed when he sent Captain List and two of his armed soldiers to the Weston branch of the Exchange Bank of Virginia, they then seized 27,000 dollars in gold coins that were stored in the bank vault for the asylum.
After this, the 7th Ohio then set up Camp Tyler on the partially constructed asylum land, a Union post was strategically located near several of the important roadways. The completed southern wing of the asylum served as barracks for the soldiers, while the main foundation was used as a stable for horses.
Confederate raids started to happen in 1862 and 1863 temporarily disrupted Union control, and raiders confiscated 5,287 dollars in 1864 from beleaguered banker McCladish and that stripped the asylum from all food and clothing that was attended for the first patients.
The hospital opened it's doors to its first patients in 1864, but construction was continued until 1881. The war ended in 1865 and the soldiers left, this allowed construction to boom and it saved the area from post-war economic depression.
The understanding of mental illness was still not to its full potential, so an interesting array of complaints were treated in the asylum, this ranged from masturbation, laziness, fits, desertion of husband, superstition, and even menstrual derangement.
The facility became a dumping grounds for the damaged and unwanted, it was designed to house 250 patients with comfort and privacy for each patient, and the hospital held 717 patients by 1880, by 1950, the hospital became dangerously overcrowded and held 2,600 patients.
They wanted to keep with the Kirkbride ideal self-sufficiency and to be able to keep up with the growing population, they began to construct more buildings on the property. They built a greenhouse for fresh produce, a geriatrics center for the elderly and ones suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's, a large kitchen and cafeteria, a building for court-ordered criminally insane, and even a state-of-the-art medical center complete with morgue and autopsy room.
Along with the new buildings, a separate building for sufferers of tuberculosis was built, it was necessary to keep the patients diagnosed with the disease isolated because of the contagious nature of the disease. This particular building was designed with open-aired wings and screened sun porches, this was different from other buildings at the facility.
The community of the Trans-Allegheny Asylum held more than just the land it was sat on. It was the main employer for the city of Weston, since the hospital was dependent on the city for its supplies and employees, and the town was economically tethered to the hospital, it was a sort of symbolic relationship. Everyone was benefiting from the relationship other than the patients, they were crammed in the overcrowded hospital, who was understaffed and under-funded. They cried for help and even justice, death was no stranger to the facility, and several murders even took place in the facility.
The hospital was designated in the 90s as a National Historic Landmark, it became unsupportable and closed its doors in 1994. There it sat abandoned for years, it was a deteriorating building in the community. And in 2007 it was placed up for auction, a contractor, Joe Jordan, made a bid of 1.5 million dollars, he had the intention of revitalizing the property and to preserve as much as the history as possible, however, a series of fires and code violations thwarted the plans for this.