“Asylum” Exhibit Historical Context, Part 2
This is a continuation of the historical information about the subject of my upcoming exhibit.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, later known as the Weston State Hospital for the Insane, is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in the Western Hemisphere, second in the world only to the Kremlin in Moscow. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990 and is one of the best examples of the Kirkbride Plan that is still intact.
The Virginia General Assembly authorized the asylum in the early 1850s after consultation with Thomas Kirkbride. At the time, Kirkbride was the Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. The asylum was designed in the Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival styles by architect Richard Snowden Andrews, who had designed the Maryland Governor’s residence in Annapolis and the southern wing of the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, DC.
Construction began in Weston, Virginia in 1858, primarily by prison laborers. Later, skilled stonemasons were brought in from Germany and Ireland. Construction was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. When the war started, the southern wing was completed and the central structure partially complete.
On the morning of June 30, 1861 elements of the Seventh Ohio Infantry under the command of Colonel Erastus Tyler, having marched all night from Clarksburg, entered the town and rounded up those suspected of having Confederate sympathies. Tyler’s mission was to seize some $30,000 in gold (well over half a million dollars today) that had been deposited by the Virginia State government to pay those working on the new asylum, before it could be returned to Richmond and used to support war effort. The banker, Robert McLandish, relinquished the gold after offering token objections. The gold was taken to Wheeling, which eventually became the first capitol of the new state of West Virginia.
The partially built asylum became Camp Tyler and was used throughout the war as a Union base, although the camp changed hands several times during the conflict.
Funding was restored for construction of the asylum, which was renamed the Weston State Hospital for the Insane in 1862 by the Reorganized Government of Virginia, which eventually became the new state of West Virginia. The first patients were admitted to the southern wing in 1864 while construction continued until 1881.
The hospital complex was designed to be self-sufficient, with a farm, dairy, water supply and even a cemetery located on the grounds.
This hospital was consistent with other Kirkbride facilities being originally designed to provide “refuge” for 250 patients. But the population of this hospital, as with the others, could not be controlled to that extent. According to wikipedia.org, the patient population grew to 717 by 1880 to its peak at about 2,600 in the 1950s in serious overcrowded conditions.
Eventually, due to changes to the treatment of mental illness and other reforms, the population of the hospital declined. The construction of the William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital began in 1986 and the old Weston State Hospital was closed in 1994.
The Kirkbride building and complex including a medical hospital, and other buildings were closed and vacant until 2007 when it was purchased by Morgantown contractor Joe Jordan. With some government funding and private donations, Jordan has begun maintenance and restoration projects in and around the main building. As of this writing (September, 2012) Joe Jordan’s organization has restored parts of the main building and offers regular guided historical tours, nighttime ghost hunts and tours, photo tours and other special events to raise money.
More information is on the web at trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com.