Weston State Hospital
Weston, West Virginia
Constructed of native blue sandstone quarried from the riverbed and the nearby hills of Lewis County,(2) the hospital is the largest hand-cut stone building in North America.(1) Design for the facility for the insane began in 1858 after the state of Virginia approved of funding, and was carried out by architect R. Snowden Andrews following an architectural format developed by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride.(4) The basic pattern, replicated at other state mental hospitals in the mid- to late-1800s, featured a central administration building and two wings that deviated from the center, one for male patients and the other for females.
Construction on the asylum began shortly after on a 40-acre tract adjacent to the river. The most southern one-story wing was “under roof” by July 28, 1860. The wing was nearly complete a year later and foundations for the remainder of the building were set, however, all construction was halted when Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861.(2) Work did not resume until July 20, 1863 when West Virginia became a state. One of the earliest acts of the new state legislature was to rename the hospital as the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. The hospital patient wing opened in 1864.
The main building was flanked by two double-sectioned wings,(2) with the walls built of solid sandstone backed with brick and measuring 2.5-feet thick. The building contained 921 windows and 906 doors, a full basement with door floors, and a reinforced concrete floor for the central administration building. A ballroom on the third floor of the central building was utilized by the local community and the hospital, where “cotillons and chautauquas” were held. A slate roof, supported by heavy timbers, was later replaced with asphalt tiles.
The central clock tower was completed in 1871, however, the building began to show signs of extreme stress from the weights of the clock, which required major repairs.(2) The tower soared 200-feet above the ground,(2) flanked by four cupolas that were 150-feet in the air. Additional wings were completed in 1872 and 1873, and in 1880, the main building was completed at a cost of $725,000 – although it was overcrowded the day that it opened. Originally designed to hold only 250 patients, it had accommodated 717.
In total, there were more than 15 miles of steam pipe and 20 miles of telephone wire, connecting not only the administration building and its wings, but the patient care and food preparation buildings, the dairy and beef barns, the ice plant, chapel and morgue. A reservoir and water treatment plant were also built on-site. The asylum-managed farm added another 276 acres, which was expanded to 666 acres and contained not only fields for agriculture, but four cemeteries, oil and gas wells, and coal mines.
In 1913, the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane was renamed to Weston State Hospital.(2)
Growth and Overcrowding
A major fire ripped through Ward Six of the south wing on October 3, 1935, causing the cupola and part of the roof to collapse.(2) Two smaller fires, set by a patient, did considerable damage to a wing shortly later. The wing was rebuilt at a cost of $115,000 through the Workers Progress Administration. A report filed by the Mental Hospital Survey Committee in 1938 stated that the hospital encompassed 488 acres and a 25 acre farm at Jackson’s Mill and served not only the mentally ill, but “epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts, and non-educable mental defectives.” There were 1,661 patients total, divided into 940 men and 721 women. The conditions of the hospital were far from stellar due to a lack of beds that forced some patients to sleep in cots, rooms had not been painted or freshened in many years, and facilities that had not been upgraded to contemporary stndards. By the start of World War II, consideration was given to replace the then-eighty-year-old hospital with a new facility.(2)
The hospital was overflowing with patients by 1949. According to a report filed by Mrs. Charles Hoag of St. Albans, more than 1,800 were crammed into “long, dreary dormitories” in “miserable, depreciated quarters which could never pass minimum inspection standards for domestic animals.”(2) Portions of the hospital that were unaffected by the major fire a few years prior, mainly the north wing, were in decrepit condition and featured splintered floors, a lack of tables and chairs, and dimly lit rooms. The portions that were affected and refurbished earlier, the south wing, were on the opposite end of the spectrum, and featured deep carpeting, modern chairs, tables and curtains. Seeing that the hospital was severely overcrowded and in poor condition, renovations were underway by 1951.
Upon Senator Robert C. Byrd’s visit on February 23, 1951, he noted that the “entire northern wing had been gutted” and that “work was progressing on all fronts.” The interior was reconstructed with reinforced pre-cast concrete slabs for flooring, and new carpeting and furnishing was installed throughout. The issue with overcrowding was not resolved, and Weston bursted at the seams with 2,400 patients by the mid-1950s.
“It is 1,295 feet long, is covered by three and one-half acres of slate roof, and affords 9 acres of floor space. To visit all the wards in this building requires a walk of two and one-third miles.”
-December 1923 Weston ‘Legionnaire’
New treatments in mental health care brought a dramatic reduction in patients by the 1980′s. In February 1986,(2) Governor Arch Moore announced plans for a new mental treatment facility; Weston would be converted into a prison. Numerous court battles and petitions ensued, followed by a misguided groundbreaking for the new mental health complex at Jane Lew. Eventually, the William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital opened in 1994 on some acreage owned by the State of West Virginia and the original Weston State Hospital was closed to public access until 1996. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources maintained the structure.
In 1999, Senator Robert C. Byrd and the West Virginia Congressional Delegation acquired $750,000 in a “Save America’s Treasures Grant” for rehabilitation work on the historic hospital.(2) This was matched by an equal amount from the state legislature. These monies came soon after the former asylum made national news when thousands of dollars in vandalism occurred at the hands of the local Weston police.(1) Governor Cecil B. Underwood created the Weston Hospital Task Force in 2000 to manage the grant, however, the November 2000 election and other circumstances slowed any doings from the group. Rehabilitation work on the structure began in June 2001. The Weston Hospital Revitalization Committee was formed soon after to explore adaptive reuse options.