By Alison Parker | Photo by Brian Prescott
An abandoned insane asylum-turned condominium complex in Staunton has a past filled with medical experiments and unstable patients
What’s now a place people call home in Staunton used to hold more than 3,000 people deemed mentally insane.
Construction for the Villages at Staunton began in 2007 to convert an old insane asylum into condos.
Scattered among the renovated condos are dilapidated buildings: an infirmary, a dining hall, asylum staff offices and living quarters. The insides of the structures are dusted with asbestos, drafty even on a humid day and streaked with red markings. Hundreds of nameless headstones make up a cemetery behind the condos.
Western State Hospital opened for its first patients in 1828. The original buildings now house the sales and administration offices for the Village. Women lived on one side in the administration building, men lived on the other, and staff stayed in the middle.
The first patient admitted to the institution was for “religious excitement,” according to Jerry Austin, the current property manager. Many other patients were kept for alcohol-related reasons and some for what may be considered today as ADD or ADHD. In a separate building, staff kept people who couldn’t room with everyone else: the loud, violent patients.
More buildings were added in 1838, now known as the Bindery Condominiums and the South buildings. The institution’s superintendent, Francis Stribling, used what was called “moral medicine.” He got rid of the chains and shackles and created a friendlier environment.
“He thought a soothing environment like this was conducive to mental healing,” Austin said. “That’s why we had gardens, beautiful trees. [The patients] had the cupolas where they could look out. That was a big part of the healing process here.”
Stribling continued this philosophy throughout the Civil War. He worked with Thomas Jefferson’s architect, Thomas Blackburn, to design new buildings with wings, columns and embellishments that made the buildings more visually appealing.
This history attracted Fred and Nancy Kaspick to rent a condo in the Bindery complex, where they’ve lived there since July 1.
“It was a little spooky before we moved here, only because of the history of it,” Nancy said. “But then, we’re both sort of history buffs, so we got really into it.”
The Kaspicks began researching deeper into the roots of their new home, especially about how patients were treated.
“It was really impressive in what it started out to be,” Nancy said. The asylum “wanted to rehabilitate people and then send them out into the community with some skill that they could do to be independent.”
But that changed in the early 1900s when Joseph DeJarnette became superintendent. He had a different philosophy for treating patients: eugenics, a practice infamously used by Nazi-Germany. A form of “racial hygiene,” it was used to cleanse undesirable genes or traits from a particular group of people. Sterilizing certain mental patients became the most common practice under DeJarnette’s direction.
Lobotomy, a neurosurgical procedure in which doctors “probe” the brain, was also performed on many patients. It was a common operation between the 1920s and 1960s but is now considered illegal and inhumane because of dangerous side effects.
Plans to remodel the entire campus are in effect — a project predicted to take about 20 years and almost $3.5 million, according to Austin. The Villages at Staunton has an agreement with the city to develop one building a year, and the project is right on schedule, he said. The Historic Staunton Foundation is overseeing the changes to make sure the original building is preserved.
There are also plans to build a Blackburn Inn that includes a three-story spa within the condo complex. Another addition, through an agreement with the American Shakespeare Center, is to build a replica of the Globe Theatre.
But Austin dismisses the possibility of the area being haunted. He’s worked on the grounds for four years and has yet to see a ghost — not even near the cemetery.
“I’ve slept upstairs in the bedrooms in my office building,” Austin said. “I think it might excite some people here, but we don’t consider it haunted.”
Fred said people always ask if he knows what he got himself into.
“When people find out where you live, the first question they ask, and they usually pull you aside, is, ‘Do you know if the people who live there know that it used to be?’ ” Fred said. “We get such a kick out of it. We weren’t afraid of it, not even the ghosts.”
Fred said since they’ve lived there, they haven’t seen anything — but they secretly wish they would.