Institutional Change

A former asylum and prison in the Shenandoah Valley becomes the Villages at Staunton

What a revolutionary—some might have said crazy—idea it was at the time, the notion that you could cure mentally ill patients by placing them in a tranquil, pastoral environment, where the architecture was ennobling and lush rolling lawns offered moments of repose. But that is precisely what Francis T. Stribling, newly arrived in Staunton, Va., imagined when he became superintendent of the Western Lunatic Asylum in 1840.

To execute this vision, he collaborated with a young architect named Thomas Blackburn, a student of Thomas Jefferson's who had worked on parts of the University of Virginia. Blackburn oversaw the expansion of the campus, constructing grand Roman Revival structures and others typical of the Virginia Piedmont—all unified by red-brick walls and Jeffersonian details such as broad pediments and Chinese lattice rails. Indeed, according to architectural historian Bryan Clark Green, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Blackburn, the 80-acre campus was so picturesque that Staunton residents visited the grounds in droves, picnic baskets in hand. Hospital officials had no choice but to erect a wrought-iron fence—not to keep patients in, but to keep the picnickers out.

In the 1970s, the asylum (by then named Western State Hospital) relocated, and the campus became home to the Staunton Correctional Center, a medium-security prison. Under the Virginia Department of Corrections' stewardship, which lasted for about three decades, many of the buildings fell into disrepair.

Partly because of the campus' proximity to Staunton's historic downtown (where a strong preservation ethic had taken hold), Bill Hamilton, the city's director of economic development, saw enormous potential in reviving the forlorn complex. In 2002, he convinced the Department of Corrections to transfer ownership to the city, then began looking for "somebody who knew historic preservation, knew what they were getting into, and wouldn't throw up their hands halfway into the project," he says.

Robin Miller, a developer with more than 30 years of preservation experience, turned out to be the perfect fit. His master plan adapted the campus for residential and commercial use, and construction on the Villages at Staunton began in 2007.

"The good news," Hamilton says, "was that the Department of Corrections did very little to reconfigure or ruin the historic architecture of the interiors. The bad news was that they did very little to enhance or maintain it."

Miller paints a slightly bleaker picture. "Some buildings were vacant for as long as 75 years," he says. "There were inches—I mean, inches—of pigeon droppings. And nothing was up to code. But I knew what I was getting into. I just knew I needed to save these buildings."

So far, three historic buildings have been converted into condominiums: the Bindery (shown opposite), a large Roman Revival building dating to 1838; 355 Greenville Avenue, a complex of four structures above a creek, the oldest of which dates to 1898; and Brookdale, an 1875 structure perched on a bluff. The restored Stribling House, built in 1844, serves as the developer's office. Miller's firm has spent $21 million to date, and the completed project will cost an estimated $250 million. Future plans include turning Thomas Blackburn's 1851 chapel and the 1828 Administrative Building into a spa-hotel complex.

Few residents of Staunton who remembered the site ringed with razor wire could have envisioned a transformation quite like this. But for Bryan Green, Western State's new guise makes perfect sense. After all, "these buildings were not utilitarian, they were not about warehousing people," he says. "They were about healing people with architecture and landscape."

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