Image: Weston Hospital
Matt Palmer  /  AP
The Weston Hospital, in Weston, W.Va., served as an asylum for nearly 150 years, but has fallen into disrepair and is going on the auction block.
updated 8/11/2007 10:18:16 PM ET 2007-08-12T02:18:16

The massive Gothic Revival building once christened The Lunatic Asylum West of the Alleghenies has stood largely silent since 1994 — more than 242,000 square feet of space now inhabited by rodents and a security guard.

The imposing Weston State Hospital is a national historic landmark — construction started before the Civil War — and one of the world’s largest hand-cut sandstone structures, sitting on nearly 307 acres surrounded by wooded hills.

But the state of West Virginia has been unable to find a suitable, sustainable use, or a simple way to unload the complex, so it’s scheduled an Aug. 29 auction on the steps of the Lewis County Courthouse.

Joy Gilchrist-Stalnaker, a genealogist and hospital historian, has worked for eight years to revive the place where three of her ancestors died and feels “a little sad” about its sale.

“It’s time something happens,” she said. “Weston continues to die with no activity. This hospital — these grounds — are part of making something happen. ... I just hope we can save the building.”

There is no minimum bid, but the state retains mineral rights and the right to reject any offer.

Building rife with history
Virginia lawmakers created the hospital in 1858. Construction stopped when Virginia seceded from the union in 1861 and resumed in 1863 after West Virginia became a separate state. Union and Confederate troops both occupied the grounds as Weston repeatedly changed hands during the war.

The first patients were admitted in October 1864. It was originally intended for 250 patients but housed nearly 10 times that many during the 1950s.

The buildings are uniformly decrepit, with peeling paint, collapsing ceilings, broken windows and damp wood. Some would have to be demolished.

But the main building, its thick stone walls topped by a white clock tower, has potential.

“This was built 150 years ago, and someone knew what they were doing,” Dave Hildreth, director of the assets division of the Department of Health and Human Resources, said during a recent tour.

Apartments that once housed the staff have built-in bookcases and fireplaces. The building features skylights, solid oak doors and floors.

‘It could be something’
For a few years after the patients moved to a new hospital, the state kept the heat on. But with 15 miles of pipe and 921 windows, that cost $300,000 a year. Eventually, the state cut back to groundskeeping and security, for a continuing annual cost of about $100,000.

“The biggest thing for me is that the property is not living up to its highest, best use,” Hildreth said. “If we could open the doors and put it in the private sector, it could be something.”

There have been attempts.

Local residents offered tours and made a little headway, fixing the clock tower, rebuilding the fountain in front of the main entry and cleaning up the mess from someone’s paintball battle. But their pockets weren’t deep enough, and the tours were halted in 2004 for safety reasons.

Plenty of ideas
Two Tennessee developers hoped to create a hotel and convention center, but they couldn’t raise $88 million for renovations.

Weston native Lowell Davis proposed a $300 million hotel and casino and persuaded Lewis County voters to pass a symbolic referendum allowing the casino, but the state rejected his plan.

If location counts, the hospital has appeal: It’s two hours south of Pittsburgh and 4½ hours west of Baltimore.

But some potential problems — including piles of cancer-causing asbestos and other possible environmental hazards — worry prospective bidders more than the ghosts that reportedly inhabit the dark and dusty hallways.

The buyer will bear those burdens with no financial help from the state. The state says it’s not required to disclose the extent of possible contamination, other than to acknowledge hazardous materials “may exist in or on the property.”

One developer, David Wamsley of Williamstown, toured the hospital with plans to raise $20 million for a project with commercial and residential elements. Three hours later, he figured he’d need 10 times that amount — and 10 to 15 years to turn a profit.

‘The fulcrum of our community’
Hildreth doubts environmental concerns will deter serious bidders.

What could be a problem is opposition by people like former mayor Jon Tucci, who argues that city officials should have a say on the future of a facility that once generated $90,000 a year in tax revenue.

“There has to be some kind of an anchor, an economic base to replace what this was,” Tucci said. “This was the fulcrum of our community for 150 years.”

Morgantown contractor Joe Jordan argues that such decisions should be left to the developer.

“If the city of Weston is going to legislate what you’re gonna do with it, well hell, they may as well just buy it,” he said.

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