'Lunatic Asylum' Renaming in W. Va. Sparks Fury Among Patients, Advocates

It's an intriguing and provocative name that translates to Web hits, phone calls and tour tickets: the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

To some, the title acknowledges history by readopting one of the many names previously held by the long-vacant, 19th century mental institution known most recently as Weston Hospital.

But others say the new owners of the massive Gothic Revival hospital have gone too far, disparaging the suffering of former patients and reopening wounds with planned events like "Psyco Path" dirt bike races on the grounds.

They say words like "lunatic" and "retarded" have gone the way of "colored" and "Negro" — and should never be resurrected.

"It's like turning back the clock to a time we don't want to go back to," said Ann McDaniel, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council, one of several mental health advocacy groups to object. "I think they could still do what they want to do without being offensive."

Scott Miller, director of Mountain State Direct Action Center, said one former patient burst into tears after seeing the name on a sign.

"It's not just that I'm a liberal and I think it's not a good idea; it's seeing people physically hurt," he said. "That's about all I needed to know."

Rebecca Jordan, whose family owns the 307-acre complex, sees things differently.

"This part of history is vital, and you cannot bury what you don't like," she said. "Should we take down the Holocaust museum? Should we completely deny all that happened because it's not favorable? Because it might hurt a few feelings?"

The daily tours that began last week — which cost $10 to $30, depending on duration — focus on issues such as the evolution of mental health care, the Civil War, the Great Depression, even architecture.

"Not one person who has gone through this place and taken the tour has said that one thing was offensive," Jordan said. "It's not a freak show."

The hospital is one of the world's largest hand-cut sandstone structures, a National Historic Landmark that once housed more than 2,000 patients but has stood largely silent since 1994.

After struggling to find a suitable, sustainable use, the state sold it at auction last summer for $1.5 million to Jordan's father, Joe, an asbestos demolition contractor from Morgantown.

The Jordans plan events on the grounds year-round: "mud bog" races, in which trucks try to speed through a pit without getting stuck; a reunion of former employees; "Hospital of Horrors" haunting tours in October; and a "Nightmare Before Christmas" tour on Dec. 23.

But their approach to marketing "cheapens and denigrates the whole field of psychology," argued Jerry Kirkpatrick, an international business and marketing professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

"They are sending mixed signals about the nature of the product they are selling. Are they selling history? Or dirt bike races and Halloween nights?" he said. "Sooner or later, one of these themes will have to move to the forefront and the other will fall to the side."

Kirkpatrick said serious treatment of the institution might mean putting recreational opportunities into a separate business and preserving the hospital as "a proper memorial."

"I can't imagine a long life for the present operation," he added, "unless they have a lot of money to throw at it."

It appears the Jordans don't.

With renovations projected to cost tens of millions of dollars, "it's going to be 50 years before we see revenue on this property," Rebecca Jordan said. "But this county is going to benefit in the next month because of the business we're going to bring in."

That's why Glenn Brown Jr., who lives within a stone's throw, is happy about the change.

"We don't want to see it deteriorate. We want to see it grow," said Brown, environmental services director for the hospital for 26 years. "I see something in the future. Before, I'd look at it and say, `Nah. It's going to sit there and just rot to the ground."'

Historian Joy Gilchrist-Stalnaker has worked for nearly a decade to save the building where three of her ancestors died. She said the new name serves as a reminder of a past no one should forget.

The genealogy society she founded, Hackers Creek Pioneer Descendants, worked for six years in the Weston Colored School, another National Historic Landmark.

"There were those people who were upset with us because we used the name. But that was the name, and the community was proud of it," Gilchrist-Stalnaker said. "It was part of them."

The Jordans, she says, "are trying to treat things with respect."

They plan to post the property on eBay for a second time — but only to drum up investment.

"It was never for sale. It's still not for sale. This building will be in this family," Rebecca Jordan said. "We're not going anywhere. You can't run us out this easily."

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