Crafted of native blue sandstone quarried mostly from the West Fork
riverbed and nearby hills in Lewis County, West Virginia, the historic Weston Hospital is purportedly the largest hand-cut stone building in North America. Beginning in 1858 and with funding from the State of Virginia, it was designed and built by R. Snowden Andrews following an architectural format developed by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride for the construction of state mental hospitals in the mid to late 1800s, i.e. a central administration building and two wings, one for male patients and the other for female.
Construction on the mammoth building, then called the Trans-Allegheny Asylum for the Insane, began in 1858 on a forty-acre tract adjacent the West Fork River in the town of Weston in what was then Virginia. The most southern one-story wing was under roof by June 1860; however, construction halted when Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861 and did not begin again until the close of this great conflict between the states. It was finally completed in 1880 by the State of West Virginia at a total cost of $625,000.
An article in the December 1923 Weston “Legionnaire” described the building: “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.” More than fifteen miles of steam pipe, most of which is still in place, delivered heat to the wards. Over twenty miles of telephone wire connected the various departments within the general office.
The main building (the highlighted area in the picture to the right) is comprised of two double-sectioned wings joined by a central structure. It is graced by a central clock tower reaching 200 feet above the tree-lined park surrounding the building. Four lower towers or cupolas once reached some 150 feet in the air; at some unknown time, probably and four other towers, each standing 150 feet high. The solid sandstone walls are two and one half feet thick and backed throughout by brick. There are 921 windows and 906 doors. A full basement, with dirt floor, runs the entire length of the structure and the interior floors are reinforced concrete. The roof is supported by heavy timbers. Much of the roof’s original slate has been replaced by rubberized roofing and/or asphalt shingles and is currently (June 2001) in need of repair. Funding has recently been received from the West Virginia Legislature and a National Treasures grant. One use of these funds will be to repair the leaking roof before the end of 2001.
The campus measures 38.97 acres by a recent survey. The adjoining “farm” tract is 275.91 acres is owned by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. The hospital campus is encompassed along its front length (east) and northern side by a Victorian wrought iron fence similar to others found in yards throughout the town. The fence was installed in 1892 and is in moderately good repair.
Even before the historic main building was completed, ancillary buildings were constructed for sundry purposes: additional patient care, food preparation, barns, etc. Later, additional acreage was acquired and totaled 666 acres. This acreage was once an integral part of the self-sufficient mental health facility including a reservoir, water treatment plant, oil and gas wells, working coal mines, ice plant, dairy, beef barn, a chapel, morgue and four cemeteries. Today, after many court battles and much community involvement, the new $28 million William R. Sharpe, Jr., Hospital (Sharpe Hospital) 230.3 acres on the rear portion of the tract. This new state-of-the-art acute care mental health hospital was completed and received 141 patients in 1994.
1770 – 1858: The site was part of the settlement and farm of Henry Flesher, Sr., his son, Henry Flesher, Jr., and their heirs. Henry Sr. was the first person to live in the area that would become the town of Weston; and, in 1783, Governor Patrick Henry granted the land to him. In 1796, the land where the hospital stands was transferred to Peter Flesher, his son. When the town was platted as the seat of government for the new county of Lewis in 1816, the town was named Fleshersville; however, the Fleshers from whom the land had been acquired for the town were unhappy with the choice and the name was changed to Preston. Less than a year later, when the new county of Preston was formed elsewhere in the state, the name was changed again – to Weston. So it remains today.
March 22, 1858: The Virginia Legislature voted to establish a facility to serve the insane in the “remote section of Virginia.” His Excellency Henry A. Wise, Governor of Virginia, appointed Thomas S. Wallace of Petersburg, Dr. Clement R. Harris of Culpeper, and Samuel T. Walker of Rockingham to seek a location for the facility.
Forewarned of their intention to visit Weston by the county’s representative to the Virginia House, Jonathan M. Bennett, the town put on their proverbial “best bib and tucker” to welcome them. All the houses and businesses were newly white-washed. Fences, sidewalks and streets were in excellent repair. They were greeted by a brass band and school children led the parade to the proposed new site. Besides the support of the local citizenry, the commission was especially swayed in their decision by the healthful location of the land along the West Fork of the Monongahela River, the water and coal supply, and the vast supply of building materials available in the immediate vicinity.
Later in the year, a Board of Directors of local business and professional men was appointed. Their first duty: the purchase of land, 269 acres at a cost of $9809.12 or $36.47 per acre. Secondly, they chose two experts in the treatment of the insane, Francis T. Striblin of eastern Virginia and Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, Superintendent of the Pennsylvania House for the Insane, as advisors and a plan for a state-of-the-art facility to house 250 patients was soon drawn. Thirdly, they selected R. Snowden Andrews as Architect. His proposed structure, based on the Kirkbride Plan, was projected to cost $253,000. Other necessary additions – heating and ventilation, engine house and exercise yard – brought the total to $395,000.
1858-1859: Work began immediately. The ground was prepared with a Mr. Goulding of Baltimore being the Topographical Engineer and John McGee, the superintendent; and materials acquired. The Weston Herald of November 1, 1858, reported that “seven convict negroes” were the first of numerous prisoners who were brought in to clean up the grounds and later to quarry the stone and to make bricks. A block house (to house these men) was one of the first structures to be built on the grounds, together with a sawmill and brick ovens. All necessary building materials were prepared on the scene.
Some of the finest blue sandstone was quarried in the nearby community of Mt. Clare and hauled in by wagon. But a few months after construction began, it was determined that a sufficient supply of suitable stone could be had in the immediate vicinity and much of it was quarried in and around Weston. Skilled stonemasons were imported from Germany and Ireland to dress and fit the giant sandstone blocks to form the thick walls. Descendants of many of these remain a part of the community today.
June 28, 1860: The Board of Directors reported that the southern one-story wing was under roof. During the following year, the wing was nearly completed and foundations were under construction for at least a portion of the rest of the building.
June 1861: The wing was nearly ready for occupancy when Virginia seceded from the Union while that portion which became West Virginia remained loyal. On June 30, 1861, the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, representing the federal government and the soon-to-be Restored Government of Virginia, arrived in Weston and “liberated” money from the Exchange Bank of Virginia. The money had been placed there by the State of Virginia to pay the construction workers at the hospital site. These funds were taken to Wheeling, (West) Virginia, where, in effect, they became the start-up treasury for the restored government and eventual new state. These funds were repaid to Virginia sometime after the Civil War. For all intents and purposes, work on the hospital ceased. However, the restored government and, subsequently, the new government of West Virginia attempted to furnish the hospital to house patients before the end of the war; but, Confederate raiders confiscated the supplies. Instead the grounds were used by the military of both the Union and Confederacy as a camping grounds during the continually changing occupation of Weston throughout the war; and, it is said that the nearly completed wing was used for everything from barracks to stables.
June 20, 1863: West Virginia became a state. One of the earliest acts of the new state’s legislature was to rename the hospital as the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane; it retained that name until 1913.
1864: Late in this year, the hospital’s wing was opened to receive its first patients. One was a 37-year-old housekeeper from Ohio County, West Virginia, who was committed for “domestic trouble.” Another was a 33-year-old housekeeper from Brooke County, West Virginia, who was hospitalized for acute dementia. The “supposed cause” of her illness: “The War.”
1865: The Second Annual Report from the Board of Governors to the West Virginia Legislature reported that the “institution has performed its full duty to the public, in receiving and treating the entire number of patients that the building, so far as finished, could accommodate.” The total number under treatment during the year was fifty-seven. Of this number, eight recovered, three died, nine were discharged, and one eloped. Forty patients remained.
1871: The central clock tower was completed and included the installation of a Seth Thomas clock operated by weights. About this time, the central portion of the building began to show signs of stress from the immense weight of the tower. Repairs were made and the building was saved. 1872: The additional wings continued toward completion. In September the hospital census was 241. The West Virginia Legislature determined their debt to Virginia. This included the cost of the hospital and its grounds.
1880: Reported dates for the main hospital structure’s completion differ. Lewis County historian, Edward Smith, in his History of Lewis County gives the date as 1871; however, extant newspapers of the day and histories compiled by hospital staff indicate that the main building was finally complete in 1880. Its total cost was $725,000. Originally designed to house 250 patients in an atmosphere of isolation, it was accommodating 717 (325 male and 392 female) at this time.
1902: From the time gas was discovered and began to be used as a heat source, the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane was one of the largest consumers. In 1900, it was determined to drill a well on the hospital farm. Gas was struck in the Gantz sand on 25 February 1902 and immediately connected. It resulted in a $5000 per year savings to the state.
Not much specific information is readily available about activities around the hospital for the hundred year period beginning in 1880 and ending in 1980, not so much because it is not recorded but because no one has ferreted it from extant newspapers and manuscripts or recorded it from the memories of modern day persons and arranged it in a manner suitable for use by the author of this document. However, a collection of pictures of earlier times was discovered in the 1990s; these have been preserved by a local historical organization and are a part of the pictorial collection of Archives and History section, West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
Beginning in pre Civil War years, the hospital and activities there were an integral part of community life in Weston and the surrounding county. From that time and well into the 1970s, local farmers supplemented the hospital’s on-site production of fruit, vegetables, milk and butter, eggs, beef, chicken, and other farm produce thus giving them (the farmers) as “cash crop.” During its 143 year history, hundreds of others were employed as doctors, nurses, attendants and aides, cooks and bakers, engineers and maintenance workers, janitors, etc. Some persons spent their entire working career as employees of the hospital; and, even today, others are employed there as guards as the Weston Hospital Revitalization Committee and others struggle to save this magnificent edifice from the ravages of time.
A ballroom on the third floor of the central section served not only the hospital but also the community. Here were held cotillions and chautauquas and other celebrations. The hospital lawn was the site of picnics for patients and the local populace. And, with the coming of high school football to the area in the early part of the twentieth century, the lawn became the site of weekly football games; it was the local playing field until the 1940s. More than one veteran of the 1930s games recalls dodging trees that then stood within the playing field.
1909: Control of the hospital was switched from the local Board of Directors to the West Virginia Board of Control in Charleston.
1913: The West Virginia Legislature changed the name of the hospital to Weston State Hospital.
1935: On October 3, 1935, about 10 p.m., a fire was discovered in the attic above Ward Six in the south wing. The Weston Fire Department was summoned. Their first priority was to remove all residents from the building. In order to keep the 390 patients then living in the wing from panicking, the dinner bell – rather than the fire alarm – was sounded. It worked. The patients from the six wards in that wing began moving toward the cafeteria in another building; firemen and hospital employees moved a ward of bed-ridden patients. Everyone was safe – or so they thought.
One patient had been asleep in the attic and did not hear the dinner bell. When he awoke, he discovered he was trapped by the flames. Quickly, two firemen raised a fifty-five foot wooden ladder up to the window where the patient had been spotted. Normally about eight men were used in lifting the ladder. Fire Chief Gary Marsh then scampered up the ladder to rescue the man. All the windows at the hospital had iron bars over them to prevent patients from jumping. As Marsh neared the window, the man inside grasped the bars and bent two of them enough to allow him room to escape. Marsh then helped the man to the ground.
Fire chief Marsh coordinated the efforts as fire companies from other West Virginia towns joined the local fire fighters in the battle against the flames. Even Governor H. G. Kump, who had been attending a festival in Elkins, West Virginia, arrived to offer what assistance he could. No lives were lost in the fire, but two of Weston’s men barely escaped death when part of the roof and a cupola crashed down on the spot where they had been standing less than a minute before.
When the fire was extinguished, it was decided that the homeless patients should be taken to nearby Jackson’s Mill, the state 4-H camp that had been the boyhood home of Confederate general, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Eventually, seventy-nine were kept at the hospital and the remaining 311 were transported to the Mill by streetcar. Here they remained until the hospital wards were made livable again. As an investigation into the cause of the fire was launched and continued, three smaller blazes erupted. By late October, an 18-year-old Nicholas County, West Virginia, inmate had admitted to setting the first fire and one other. Still another patient was charged with the remaining two.
The hospital wing was rebuilt with a $115,000 Workers Progress Administration allotment from the federal government.
1938: The Mental Hospital Survey Committee, a committee organized by eight medical and mental hygiene organizations in the United States and Canada “to bring about a more equal and uniform distribution of adequate measures and facilities for the early recognition and treatment or amelioration of adverse mental conditions and to insure a wider distribution of adequate teaching facilities in psychiatry and neurology” visited the hospital through their representative, Dr. Granville, L. Jones. He filed a report of several pages, some highlights of which follow:
The hospital grounds then encompassed 488 acres along the West Fork River and a twenty-five acre farm at Jackson’s Mill, a few miles away. In addition to the mentally ill, “the hospital received epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts, and non-educable mental defectives.” At the time of Dr. Jones’ visit, there were 1661 patients, 940 men and 721 women.
Located in the central portion of the main building were the administrative offices, some living quarters, and the kitchen and dining rooms; the wards for patients were in the wings, men on the south and women on the north. Wards were characteristically long with rooms usually on both sides of the corridor. There was (and continues to be in 2001) a large bay off the corridor that was used as a sitting room or activities area in most wards. The floors in the reconstructed southern wing now had concrete beams and were slab covered with wood. Nothing had been done on the northern end of the building.
Here and there was evidence of attempts by employees to brighten the rather depressing aspects of the old wards. Some of the walls had been recently painted and there were some curtains and a few rugs. There were chairs and benches of heavy wood construction, the beds were of metal construction with most of them chipped and marred. Some patients slept on cots. Whether there were any improvements or upgrading of the facility as a result of Dr. Jones’ visit is doubtful. World War II was looming on the horizon. It is probable, however, that this study was the beginning of consideration being given to closing the eighty-year-old hospital for a more modern, state-of-the art facility . . . a consideration that would finally become fact in 1994.
January 23, 1949: The Charleston Gazette, Charleston, West Virginia, published a report compiled by Mrs. Charles Hoag of St. Albans, West Virginia, whom they described as “a little housewife with persistency, and a compassion for others less fortunate than her own.” She was convinced it was her public duty to report the facts about West Virginia’s mental hospitals. The newspaper agreed. Her report about Weston State Hospital, published January 23-26, 1949, described conditions there.
Mrs. Hoag described the ninety-year-old Weston State Hospital as “sprawling over a quiet expanse of well-tended lawns, (which) conceals behind it imposing facades the ‘worst and the best of West Virginia’s care for the mentally ill.” At the time of the report, “more than 1,800 men and women were jammed into long, dreary dormitories, doubled up on tiny rooms intended for one, many existing in miserable depreciated quarters which could never pass minimum inspection standards for domestic animals.”
Much of Mrs. Hoag’s report focused on the deplorable condition of the buildings. . . splintered, urine-soaked floors, not enough tables and chairs, large rooms lighted by a single bare lightbulb, little if any heat emanating from corroded pipes, and more. “One old wizend crone of a patient summed up the condition with the unsolicited comment that ‘It looks like a hogpen.’ It smelled even worse.”
However, in direct contrast, were sections of the hospital that had burned in the 1935 fire. These represented the “best” in West Virginia’s mental health care. Here were deep blue carpets, only slightly worn; substantial modern chairs and tables; filmy curtains; and reasonably happy inmates.
Each day the newspaper followed Mrs. Hoag’s report with a comment:
“Any way you look at it, it comes out that the people who run our mental hospitals are doing a fine job under insurmountable handicaps. Disgraceful conditions are not their fault. It is the fault of the people of the state who refuse to furnish the funds for proper care of our mentally ill.” – January 23, 1949
“There can be no valid excuse for the state to subject its unfortunate wards to inhuman indignities.” – January 24, 1949
“The contrast between the good and the atrocious at Weston is a direct challenge to the people of West Virginia to give all our mentally ill what is now available only to a pitiful few.” – January 25, 1949
“Are the people of West Virginia willing to condone the inhuman conditions in our mental institutions?” – January 26, 1949
June 1949: Mrs. Hoag’s articles called attention to the conditions at Weston and other state mental institutions and precipitated a visit to the facilities by a delegation from the 1949 West Virginia Legislature. Their visit galvanized the same legislature into increasing appropriations for the hospital and enabling the direly needed repairs as well as the construction of a new building to house the criminally insane. Patients were removed from the old northern wing and repairs were begun immediately. At the same time, construction was begun on the new building.
February 23, 1951: The Weston Democrat reported that West Virginia Delegate Hiram Phillips of Matewan and the young State Senator from Raleigh County, Robert C. Byrd, had visited the facility a few weeks previously and found that work was progressing on all fronts and that the northern wing had been gutted. During the next year or so, the interior was reconstructed with reinforced pre-cast concrete slabs for the floors. The exact date of completion of this work is not known at this time.
1952-1994: Patient census at Weston State Hospital was at an all-time high in the 1950s with 2400 patients in the main building and its auxiliary buildings. The facility was immensely overcrowded. Fortunately, for patients and for staff, in the 1960s, changes were occurring. Patients’ rights and rehabilitation, new medications for some conditions, and new methods of treatments for others made life better for patients and staff alike and also resulted in a patient population that began to decline. However, despite the renovations of the 1930s and 50s, the physical facility did not meet the needs for treatment.
In 1953, when West Virginia state government reorganized, responsibility for the hospital changed to the Department of Mental Health. In 1957, another reorganization combined Mental Health and the Department of Health into a new West Virginia Department of Health. Then, in the late 1980s, during Governor Arch Moore’s last term, the Department of Health became the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resource.
By the 1980s, still new treatments in mental health brought a great reduction in the number of patients requiring long-term care. And, in February 1986, Governor Arch Moore announced plans to build a new facility somewhere else in West Virginia and to convert the old hospital to a prison. That plan, along with others that followed, had many twists and turns and resulted in numerous court battles, petitions and visits to the West Virginia Legislature by citizens and committees, a misguided ground-breaking for a proposed facility at Jane Lew (6 miles up I-79 from Weston), and the eventual construction of a new facility on part of the tract owned by the State of West Virginia around Weston State Hospital.
That new facility, the William R. Sharpe, Jr., Hospital was opened to patients in 1994 and the old historic facility, by now being called Weston Hospital, was closed to public use. For two years following the removal of patients to the new facility, the building’s owner and manager, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, retained heat in the building. Now, there is no heat and only a minimum of electricity supplies the building. DHHR does nominally maintain the grounds and provides guard service. Occasional groups hold events there, i.e., Octoberfest, church revivals, youth soccer.
However, the importance of rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of the building and its surrounding areas have not been forgotten. In fiscal year 1999, Senator Robert C. Byrd and the West Virginia Congressional Delegation acquired $750,000 in a Save America’s Treasures Grant for rehab work on the historic structure. It was matched by a like amount from the West Virginia Legislature. In October 2000, Governor Cecil B. Underwood established the Weston Hospital Task Force (WHTF) to manage the grant. The November election and other circumstances slowed the enactment of the task force. It finally began its work in June 2001.
At the same time, local support for adaptive reuse of the building was stirred with the formation of the Weston Hospital Revitalization Committee (WHRC).
Together, these two groups brightened the future hope of a successful adaptive reuse. Both groups have met on a monthly schedule and continue to work for the future of Weston Hospital with a number of accomplishments.
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