You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

Ex-W.Va. psychiatric hospital becoming tourist attraction

- Associated Press - Monday, January 2, 2012

WESTON, W.Va. — Normally, Rebecca Jordan will take all the free TV exposure she can get for the psychiatric hospital she has turned into a tourist attraction known as the trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

SyFy's "Ghost Hunters." Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" and "Ghost Stories." Discovery's "Forgotten Planet." She even hosted an episode of CMT's "My Big Redneck Wedding" on the 307-acre grounds.

But she drew the line when producers for A&E's "Paranormal State" called. They didn't want to meet the ghosts behind the 2 1/2-foot-thick walls, she said. They wanted to get rid of them.

"And I was like, 'Well, maybe you're not the right fit for me. We do not want to get rid of our spirits! We want them to stay in the building!'

"Unless they want to go home," she added with a laugh. "And then they can go home. I'm not trying to keep anybody here who doesn't want to be here."

Spirits, after all, make money. And the property Ms. Jordan's father bought three years ago for $1.5 million is generating enough revenue from overnight public ghost hunts at $100 a person and other types of tours to pay a staff of 33 and fund a never-ending list of maintenance and repair projects.

The main Gothic Revival building is one of the world's largest hand-cut-sandstone structures and a National Historic Landmark. Virginia legislators authorized its construction in 1858, but it wasn't until 1864 that the first patients were admitted.

The hospital repeatedly changed hands during the Civil War, ending up with West Virginia when it became a separate state. Originally intended for 250 patients, it housed nearly 10 times that many during the 1950s.

Known in later years as Weston Hospital, it closed in 1994, when the state moved patients to a more modern facility. It stood empty for nearly 15 years, inhabited only by rats, security guards and the occasional paintball-playing trespasser.

In 2008, Mrs. Jordan's father, Joe Jordan, an asbestos-abatement and demolition contractor in Morgantown, bought it at auction for $1.5 million. He since has sunk at least another $1 million into the place, hiring crew after crew to repair the showpiece clock tower, the disintegrating floors and the forever-leaking roofs.

Running the asylum is a family affair.

Ms. Jordan handles marketing and sales. Her historian husband applies for grants. Her brother handles advertising and maintains the website. Her 13-year-old daughter, Breonna Childress, is a full-time volunteer who hosts overnight birthday-party ghost hunts with her friends and talks about the day she'll inherit the business.

Mainly by capitalizing on public interest in the paranormal, the Jordans have lured more than 115,000 visitors to the property since they bought it.

Chris Richards, director of the Lewis County Convention and Visitors Bureau, calls the following "phenomenal," noting that people are traveling from all over the world to visit Weston.

The Jordans and local hotels co-sponsor each other, and the operators of gas stations, convenience stores and restaurants all tell Ms. Richards that business is up.

"We're all tickled to death that someone is in there and using the space and bringing it back to its heyday and letting it be all it can be," she said. "If you love architecture and you love history and you love the paranormal, you're going to love that building, and that's just all there is to it."

Not that there aren't critics. Some mental health advocates were outraged by the name change and still are.

"I still think it is inappropriate to capitalize on the sad history of that place and to promote the stereotypes that are attached often to mental illness," said Ann McDaniel, executive director of the West Virginia Statewide Independent Living Council. "There's enough fear out there about people who have mental illness. We don't have to make it scary.

"It sensationalizes," she said. "If they were just educating people, that would be good. But when you have haunted houses ... when you have trails called the 'Psycho Path,' that kind of thing is negative."

About once every six months, Ms. Jordan said, she gets a call from someone concerned about the name.

"And then they book!" she said. "So who cares?"

The Jordan family has experience with mental health issues, she said, and its exhibits educate people on treatments once considered state of the art but now considered horrifying - electroshock therapy, lobotomies, cold-water baths and cagelike cribs that were hung from the ceiling, to name just a few.

The seven museum rooms also feature more than 120 pieces of artwork - pottery, paintings, quilts - that patients made in therapy. Disassembled for the winter, when the unheated building is cold and damp, the displays include the superintendent's books, nurses' logs and more.

The asylum is working with West Virginia University to create an interactive exhibit featuring storyboards, photos and recorded interviews with former patients and staff. The museum is a popular stop with junior high and high school history classes, but also with students of nursing and abnormal psychology.

"Primarily, there were people here who were trying to make it better for the mentally ill," Ms. Jordan said. "But there were still people who believed in what they called 'thump therapy' ... and that's just the people who came in angry and would just beat the patients. Unfortunately, that did happen."

The key to the Jordans' success so far has been a diversity of offerings, from Civil War and hospital history tours to "mud bogs" for four-wheelers and trucks, and a 25-band Moonstruck Music Festival. It hosts year-round paranormal tours and ghost hunts, even inviting TV celebrities to give seminars and lead special private hunts.

Ms. Jordan said the asylum is making about $600,000 or $700,000 a year, but she still doesn't take a salary, and every dollar goes back into the business.

"And I'm fine with that," she said. "As long as we're able to keep the building open."

At the end of October, her payroll totaled about $161,000, but maintenance expenses were more than $295,000 - and that was before the wintertime shutdown and the ramping-up of repairs.

And so she adds attractions, with an eye to running a year-round business this year.

In the spring, she'll open three new museum rooms, plus a Macabre Museum "with all the oddities, all the strange stories" in the basement. Ms. Jordan also is working with bus companies on a "Kooky Christmas" and dinner-theater tour that will keep people coming through next winter.

But she faces on expensive hurdle: The unheated building is frigid, colder inside on a rainy December day than it is outside.

Employee Eric Skinner leaned over and fake-whispered in Ms. Jordan's ear.

"If you heat it," he told her, "they will come."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.