8 things you didn’t know about Virginia’s DeJarnette Sanitarium

8 Things You Didn’t Know About Virginia’s DeJarnette Sanitorium

Photo courtesy of Flickr

By Aila Boyd

January 31, 2024

Like many early mental health facilities, the DeJarnette Sanitarium has a long and complicated history. While its troublesome roots begin with its founder, a fervent advocate of the eugenics movement, its mission to treat patients struggling with mental health ailments continues elsewhere in the form of the statewide Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents. 

Today, the large, abandoned brick structure in Staunton that once housed the sanitarium serves as a reminder of the difficult legacy of the institution itself and its founder and namesake.  

Here are eight things to know about the former DeJarnette Sanitarium:

The sanitarium is over 90 years old.

Dr. Joseph DeJarnette opened a self-supporting, semi-private mental hospital for middle-income adult patients as the special pay unit of Western State Hospital in 1932, thanks in large part to the support of then-Gov. Harry Flood. A $100,000 loan was used to build the hospital. In 1934, the General Assembly separated it from the hospital, making the DeJarnette Sanitarium its own entity.

It was named after Dr. Joseph DeJarnette.

The sanitarium derives its name from Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, a prominent Virginia psychiatrist and eugenicist. He performed hundreds of involuntary sterilizations at Western State Hospital, which he became superintendent of in 1906, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. He ultimately believed the forced sterilizations to be beneficial to society. “He took pride in the state’s aggressive approach to sterilization, but felt the state was not acting fast enough and publicly admired Nazi Germany’s more ambitious plan,” the encyclopedia noted. 

DeJarnette received public scrutiny. 

Despite being viewed by many as a public health authority and even testifying successfully before the US Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell, a case involving the sterilization of a Virginia woman named Carrie Buck, DeJarnette later faced public scrutiny for his actions. In 1943, he was criticized before the State Hospital Board for his “autocratic style and the decrepitude of Western State Hospital.” In November of that year, he was removed as the hospital’s superintendent but managed to stay in charge of the sanatorium until 1947. In 2001, the General Assembly denounced the commonwealth’s previous eugenics program—a program that defined so much of DeJarnette’s career. 

DeJarnette Sanitarium changed names multiple times.

Originally named the DeJarnette Sanitarium, the General Assembly voted in 1934 to rename it the DeJarnette State Sanitarium. Shifting to a children’s facility in 1975, it was renamed the Dejarnette Center for Human Development. Finally, the State Board of the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, now the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, voted in 2001 to change the name to the Commonwealth Center for Children & Adolescents. 

The facility shifted to treat children and youth with behavioral disorders. 

A General Assembly commission in 1972 recommended that the facility be used to serve “the hundreds of children and youth with severe behavioral disorders.” Three years later, it had been fully converted to a children’s facility, having been approved by the General Assembly to operate a 65-bed residential (weekdays only) and 35-day student program. Throughout the intervening years, its capacity expanded, including the transfer of the adolescent unit from Western State Hospital to the center. By 1975, it was no longer self-supporting. 

The former sanitarium is now abandoned.

By 1980, the General Assembly’s Bagley Commission recommended a task force study on the relocation of the center. Twelve years later, a $7.2 million bond referendum provided funding for the replacement facility. The year 1996 brought with it the center’s relocation to a new 48-bed facility. Today, the “striking brick structure,” as the News Leader called it, that once housed the sanatorium on a hill on Frontier Drive in Staunton sits abandoned.  

The facility has been an “albatross” for Staunton.

Given the massive size of the Georgian Revival-style structure, Staunton has been plagued with uncertainty about what to do with the former sanitarium since it closed. Efforts to market the building in the intervening years proved unsuccessful, according to The Hook. Former Staunton Mayor John Avoli described the structure as being an “albatross” due to its deterioration and asbestos insulation. This led to efforts in the early- and mid-aughts by the Frontier Culture Museum, which controlled the site, to demolish it to make room for a shopping center, restaurants, and cultural center. 

Today, the center offers treatment through multidisciplinary teams.

In its current constitution as the Commonwealth Center for Children & Adolescents, the center provides treatment to children, pre-adolescents, and adolescents through “multidisciplinary teams of child psychiatrist, clinical psychologists, nurses, social workers, activities therapists, teachers, and behaviorally trained care staff.” Individual treatment plans related to psychiatric evaluation, crisis stabilization, and intensive short-term treatment are developed for each child. The center is guided by the Commonwealth Center Advisory Council, a nonprofit organization that was formed in 1987. It comprises a broad range of representatives, including former patients, legislators, academics, public school personnel, and local citizens.

  • Aila Boyd

    Aila Boyd is a Virginia-based educator and journalist. She received her MFA in writing from Lindenwood University.

CATEGORIES: COMMUNITY | LOCAL HISTORY

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