Following the Tracks
Located in Canonsburg, PA
- Also Known As:Pennsylvania Reform School at Morganza, House of Refuge for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Training School, Canonsburg Youth Development Center, Western State School and Hospital
- Genre:State School / Developmental Center, Juvenile Detention Center
- Age:143 years
- Demo / Renovated:2006
- Decaying for:6 years
- Last Known Status:Being demolished or renovated
Photo © Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Western Center History
The roots of this hospital began with the establishment of the House of Refuge for the Western District of Pennsylvania in 1852, on what is now the former Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, PA. In 1872, this reform school was moved to an area in Cecil Township called Morganza with the purchase of the land at the price of $88,621. The Pennsylvania Reform School at Morganza (later named the Pennsylvania Training School in 1906) housed "incorrigible" boys and girls up to the age of 21. Buildings on the campus included an administration building, school buildings, three shop buildings, chapel, hospital, and various cottages for the care of residents. The school's original administration building burned to the ground in February 1927, and the replacement that stands today was constructed in in 1929 for $325,000. This art deco brick building features Italian marble floors and a uniquely shaped copper tower rising from the center. The Morganza train station was situated in front of the administration building on state land, which encompassed 1,200 acres. Some of the property was sold to an industrial and residential park known as "Southpointe" in 1957. In 1960, the facility changed names once again to the Canonsburg Youth Development Center.
The Western State School and Hospital opened at the campus in 1962, utilizing some of the old reformatory buildings as a place to care for the severely disabled; a large state-of-the-art medical building was also constructed around this time. The state of Pennsylvania was caring for more than 13,000 developmentally disabled people at the time, and the hospital (later known as Western Center in 1976) cared for more than 750 people. The hospital eventually consisted of 37 buildings on 304 acres of land. Following the trends of de-institutionalization, the population at Western Center decreased to 650 residents in 1985, then dwindled to only 133 by 1998.
The decision to down-size and subsequently close Western Center stemmed from complaints of neglect and abuse from parents and guardians of some residents in 1989. During this time, admissions froze, and an undercover investigator was sent to the facility who reported abuse from the staff, resulting in the firing of 22 aides and a class action lawsuit. The state then decided to close the facility and move the remaining 380 residents into group homes by June 1999. However, 21 of the 22 staff members were re-hired, as the charges were ultimately deemed unsubstantiated. Feeling that Western Center was the best place for their loved ones, the decision to close was vehemently fought by the Western Center Parents Association with vigils and protests. The parents in this group strongly felt that the care in group homes was significantly sub-par to that in the institution, and that care in some group homes led to abuse, neglect, and even death. Some also felt the closure was just a scapegoat for getting a lucrative business deal to replace the structures on the vast property.
Although the fight had delayed the closing, the inevitable happened when Western Center was shuttered in May 2000. One resident was arrested after striking a state trooper in the face as police barred families from visiting their children before and during the move to prevent disruption. Parents of the former patients filed a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania in 2001, saying the state violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by closing the institution.
The exterior of the administration building can be easily recognized as the "Baltimore State Forensic Hospital" in the film Silence of the Lambs (1991). It has been designated as a historic landmark, and is saved from demolition for the time being.
Most of the property was sold to expand the affluent "Southpointe" development that had abutted the state land for many years; the new annex was cleverly named "Southpointe II." With the help of a one-million dollar Commonwealth grant, some of the buildings were razed for new construction during 2005-2006 (with the exception of administration). A small cemetery containing the graves of 35 children who died at the old Morganza reform school still remains as well. Each cement headstone bear the name of the deceased and the message "Rest in Peace."