Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

One of the highlights of my trip was visiting the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia. To quote their website..

"The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, constructed between 1858 and 1881, is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in North America, and is purportedly the second largest in the world, next to the Kremlin. It was designed by the renowned architect Richard Andrews following the Kirkbride plan, which called for long rambling wings arranged in a staggered formation, assuring that each of the connecting structures received an abundance of therapeutic sunlight and fresh air. The original hospital, designed to house 250 souls, was open to patients in 1864 and reached its peak in the 1950's with 2,400 patients in overcrowded and generally poor conditions. Changes in the treatment of mental illness and the physical deterioration of the facility forced its closure in 1994 inflicting a devastating effect on the local economy, from which it has yet to recover."

The building is 1/4 mile long and was so big I could
n't get a good picture of the entire structure.

As we drove into Weston and crossed South Forks River we were shocked at how massive the structure is. It is the focal point of the town. It was not difficult to be admitted to a mental hospital 100 years ago and I could only imagine that living in the shadow of this huge building would be a constant reminder to the residents of the area to "be on their best behavior."

Some strange reasons to be admitted to an asylum were some of the following:
  • over eating
  • hard study
  • seduction
  • reading the bible too much
  • affairs
  • infatuations
  • excitability
  • falling off a horse
  • political excitement
  • novel reading
  • female problems

Our guide told us that if a man wanted to have an affair or get rid of his wife because she had money, all he had to do was get a witness to go with him to the asylum and his wife would be admitted.

The Tour

For $30 we each were allowed to tour all four floors. I was a little hesitant to go up the many flights of stairs, due to my knee, but I knew if I didn't go, I would be mad at myself. The guide was patient with me as I took my time climbing the stairs.

This picture was taken from the main floor looking up the stairwell. This is called a coffin style stairway. Once a patient tried to commit suicide by jumping from the top of the stairs down the stairwell, but all he did was bounce and bang his way down and ended up breaking his leg.

View from the top of the stairs looking down

When the sun shone through the leaded glass at the front entrance
it formed rainbows on the floor, calming the patients.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum followed the Kirkbride plan of treatment, Building as Cure, which provided patients with long, sun lite hallways, lots of windows and spacious grounds. The idea came from
Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride's theory that patients should be treated in humane conditions with comfortable living quarters and plenty of activities. At one time there were over 300 facilities across the country built in the Kirkbride style.

Here our tour guide, Ted, demonstrates how a patient in the criminally insane ward would be restrained, by being handcuffed to the wall, spread eagle. Not all the treatment would be considered to be humane. However, some of the more dangerous patients were treated in this manner.

A dark corridor leads to the isolation rooms were the worst patients,
the criminally insane, were placed.

When this hospital had patients, their doors were kept open to keep the hallways bright and sunny. The light still shines in, but the rooms are empty.

In 1994 the Asylum closed and the utilities were turned off. The building was very cold. In the corner of a window, where it was wet and damp, wild mushrooms thrive.

Ted, our guide, shows us the living quarters of the doctors. Although the walls are badly damaged, I loved the texture and color.

In 15 years, vandals have done a lot of damage.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum offers haunted tours and a haunted house. Here someone has written "ghost" on a bulletin board. As much fun as it was to tour the place, I never saw or heard anything unusual. However, being there in the evening, during the haunted tours, might be a different story!

I found this to be a very informative and fun afternoon. We have come so far in the treatment of the mentally handicapped that it didn't bother me to wander around the halls of an institution where the mentally ill might not have been so kindly treated. As someone who has been in therapy herself, and who has taken anti-depressants in the past, I wondered if someone like me would have been a patient in a place like this. If the criteria was too much novel reading, excitability or female problems, I'm sure I would have had my own room.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is trying to raise money to renovate the hospital back to it's original look. It's a big undertaking and I wish them luck. If historical buildings fascinate you and you'd like to contribute to the renovation, here's a link to their website.

Here's an eerie video I found..

1 comment:

Angie C. said...

I found your blog post through a series of links....various members of my family worked here from the 60's until it closed. My mom was probably one of the last out because she hated the look of the new hospital! lol

"When the sun shone through the leaded glass at the front entrance
it formed rainbows on the floor, calming the patients." And when the sun shone, this was one of the hottest places in the hospital!

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