Photo © Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
In 1770, the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds was established in Willamsburg Virginia, and was the first public institution devoted to treating the mentally ill in the U.S. By 1825 a need for a second asylum was realized, and the Virginia General Assembly approved the construction of one to serve the western portion of the state. The Western Lunatic Asylum opened in 1828, designed to soothe patients and to provide an aesthetically pleasing place of recovery. The architect of the original buildings was Thomas Blackburn (a protégé of Thomas Jefferson), who worked closely with the hospital's director Dr. Francis Stribling to create this tranquil environment. Dr. Stribling was a major proponent of the moral therapy approach, that the cure to insanity requires an environment where patients lived comfortably and exercised outdoors. This collaboration resulted in terraced gardens, intricate architectural details, and most notably, spiral staircases which provided access to domed cupolas and roof walks where the majestic mountain views could be appreciated. Patient rooms had a high level of finish work, improved ventilation, and large common rooms and corridors to promote social interaction. Dr. Stribling would be the resident physician and superintendent of the hospital until his death in 1874.
The facility went through a brief name change in 1861, when it was called the Central Lunatic Asylum, however the founding of a hospital for African Americans in Petersburg VA would take on this name, and the name was changed back to the original title in 1870. In 1894 the General Assembly passed legislation which changed the name to Western State Hospital. After the Civil War, the moral therapy approach and the asylum model of care was proving to be a failure. Western State and most other asylums in America were becoming warehouses for the outcasts of society, and the architecture of the buildings (while beautiful), proved to be unsafe and more of a hinderance. More extreme methods of treatment were taking place at WSH and other hospitals, which involved restraint, seclusion, and eventually prefrontal lobotomies, seizure induction, and sterilization.
In 1905 a renowned physician named Dr. Josepf DeJarnette would become superintendent of WSH, and kept this position for 38 years, the longest tenure ever in the hospital's history. His views strongly embraced the eugenics movement, and many patients were involuntary sterilized at Western State in an attempt to improve the genetic quality of the human population. The doctor also opened and operated a private sanitarium close to the state hospital's grounds called the DeJarnette Sanitarium, named in his honor.
After World War II, electroconvulsive therapy and then psychotropic drugs were employed at WSH and other state hospitals around the world. As the patient population climbed steadily, WSH opened a second site in 1949-1950, and eventually reached a peak residency of over 3,000 patients at the two sites. When a new campus was constructed in the 1960s (commonly known as the "New Site") and the patient population began to decline rapidly, the original campus ("Old Site") began to slowly empty out. By the 1970s, the Old Site had been completely vacated, and the grounds were converted into the Staunton Correctional Center; many of the old psychiatric hospitals in the country were re-purposed in the same fashion due to the similar needs of security and administration that these campuses provided, and they had the benefit of already being state-owned properties.
The prison operated on site until 2002 when it was closed down, and the campus was eventually sold to a developer. The facility is currently being remodeled into condominiums in stages, and is called Villages at Staunton.
The Library of Virginia has extensive documentation of the hospital and records, the titles of which can be viewed online.