For Sale: Former West Virginia insane asylum

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WESTON, W. Va. -- A month from today, an auctioneer will stand on the steps of the Lewis County courthouse and sell to the highest bidder a sprawling complex that has been part of the community for many of its 191 years.


V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-GazetteState and local officials are putting Weston State Hospital in West Virginia up for auction. Originally called Trans-Allegheny Asylum for the Insane, it was closed as a public facility in 1994. The officials have tried for several years to find a buyer and hope an auctioneer will do that.
Click photo for larger image.
More on Weston State Hospital

Slideshow: Inside Weston State Hospital

Details about the Aug. 27 auction from the W. Va. Department of Health and Human Resources Web site

Interior and exterior photos of the building from the Preservation Photography Web site

Post-Gazette archives
W.Va. may want to turn old asylum into a casino, 10/10/04

A town sees red over police vandalism, 6/20/99



Weston Mayor Julia Howes Spelsberg stands in the entrance to the Weston State Hospital. She said the building is a treasure to the town, and she wants to keep it intact.
Click photo for larger image.This abandoned patient room at Weston State Hospital has bars on door and windows.
Click photo for larger image.Details of a window in the hospital.
Click photo for larger image.

Originally called the Trans-Allegheny Asylum for the Insane when chartered by the state of Virginia in 1858, the 307 acres that comprise the grounds of Weston State Hospital are as much a part of downtown Weston as the 120-year-old Italianate courthouse and the Victorian Louis Bennett Public Library.

In fact, the hospital and its distinctive 200-foot clock tower are so linked to Weston that they have been used for years in the town's promotional material.

High school football games were played on the hospital's grand lawn, and proms were held in the third-floor theater and ballroom of the main building.

But all that was years ago. The hospital has been closed since it was replaced in 1994 by the smaller William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital, built on the far edge of the Weston State Hospital grounds.

Since then, there have been many suitors to buy the hospital, but none has passed muster with state officials. For a while after the hospital closed, the state sought proposals from developers in hopes of working out a deal to convey the property in exchange for economic benefits for Weston, Lewis County and the state.

Though there were some creative proposals, none was solid enough for the state to take the chance of deeding over the property, said David Hildreth, director of the Division of Assets and Property Management in the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources in Charleston. The department owns the hospital and is conducting the Aug. 29 auction.

The jewel of the hospital property is the main building, a massive, nearly quarter-mile-long structure built of sandstone, obtained mostly from the West Fork of the Monongahela River, which borders the hospital property. A historical marker outside the hospital's wrought-iron fence says the 455,725-square-foot building is the largest hand-cut-stone building in the country.

Local folks and state officials would like who ever buys the property to retain the main building, which was built between 1858 and 1882, and was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1990.

"I think it's a fantastic building," said Chris Knorr, assistant director of the state Historic Preservation Office in Charleston. "It certainly is an asset to the state and to Weston itself. It's been such a part of that community for so long."

The building gained a bit of notoriety in 1999, when law-enforcement agencies staged a weekend paint-ball war inside the building, extensively damaging all four floors.

Weston residents were upset about the disrespect shown to the hospital, which not only housed tens of thousands of vulnerable West Virginians over its 130-year existence, but also played a significant role in the state's founding.

The Virginia General Assembly authorized a western mental institution in 1858 because the only such facility in the state was in Williamsburg. Weston was chosen as the location, but the outbreak of the Civil War halted construction in 1861.

Western Virginia was an important strategic location for Union and Confederate armies, particularly because of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line through the area. The first land battle of the war, a Union victory, was fought in Philippi in Barbour County, about 35 miles from Weston.

The day after the battle, Union loyalists met in Wheeling and formed the Restored Government of Virginia because Virginia had seceded and was part of the Confederacy. A member of the Weston hospital's board of directors contacted the new governor, Francis Pierpont, and told him that $29,000 was in a bank in Weston for construction of the hospital.

At the end of June, Union Gen. George B. McClellan dispatched a newly arrived regiment, the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, from Clarksburg to Weston to retrieve the construction money. The soldiers did their duty and spirited the money in a hearse to Wheeling, where it was used as the treasury for the fledgling Restored Government of Virginia, which two years later became the state of West Virginia.

Soldiers on both sides camped on the hospital grounds during the war, and the hospital itself housed many soldiers after the conflict.

"We would not have the state of West Virginia if not for this hospital," said local historian Joy Gilchrist-Stalnaker.

For a couple of years earlier this decade, Ms. Stalnaker and others gave tours of the old hospital and operated a gift shop, toy museum and a military museum. But they were shut down by the state fire marshal for code violations.

One of the proposals that was floated several years ago was to open a Civil War museum at the hospital, to take advantage of nearby battlefields and the notoriety of Lewis County native Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the famed Confederate general who died after the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. General Jackson was born in Clarksburg, but grew up in Jackson's Mill, about two miles from Weston.

There have been a number of other proposals and rumors of proposals, including a casino, resort and senior-citizen residence. Mr. Hildreth, of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, said some of the developers who submitted proposals years ago still are interested in the site.

State and federal tax incentives, as well as state grants, are available to developers, said Mr. Knorr, of the state Historic Preservation Office.

"We certainly are interested in what happens and we are available to talk to any developers about what kind of financial incentives may be available," he said.

Of the suggested uses for the hospital site, the most attractive to local officials is the prospect of a senior-citizen residence. But they would be happy with any viable development, so long as it keeps intact the historic main building.

"I would be happy if any company would come in here and say we want the property and here's what we're going to do with it," Weston Mayor Julia Howes Spelsberg said.

The worst that could happen? A buyer leveling the building and selling the sandstone blocks from the main building, she said.

"It's a treasure to us, and that would break my heart," Ms. Spelsberg said.


Mike Bucsko can be reached at mbucsko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1732.


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