The place once known as the Western State Lunatic Asylum before it became a medium security prison in 1981 and was abandoned in 2002 opened last week as The Blackburn Inn.
“This building has such a storied past,” says Paul Cooper, the president and CEO of Retro Hospitality, the firm that manages the inn.
Part-time Richmonder and part-time Staunton resident Robin Miller bought the 80-acre property in 2006, and almost immediately turned its abandoned bindery into an apartment complex. The Blackburn Inn sits in Western State’s former administrative building, where original skeleton keyholes still puncture the doors.
Designed in 1828 by Thomas Blackburn, a master builder and protégé of Thomas Jefferson, the inn showcases Western State’s original heart pine floors, whitewashed wood trim, red brick and classical moldings. Sunlight from its many windows floods the wide-arched hallways and vaulted ceilings.
It’s in one of those hallways where Cooper bumps into a guest.
“Sometimes these old buildings can feel kind of cavernous and not so friendly, but you guys made it feel good,” Arlington resident Rick Hodges tells him. “It feels very luxurious and modern, but you preserved the charm.”
But its original uses weren’t entirely charming, and Cooper admits that the “direction of care changed,” at what was a resort-style insane asylum after hospital director Francis T. Stribling, a UVA grad who embraced “moral medicine,” died in 1874. It wasn’t long before Western State became known for its forced sterilizations, electroshock therapy, lobotomies, shackling of patients and affinity for straitjackets.
During a recent tour, Cooper set aside a velvet rope on the third floor that is used to block a white spiral staircase. He ascended its 41 steps, pausing briefly in the cupola at the top before opening a glass door and exposing 360-degree views that stretch to historic downtown Staunton, the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind and Mary Baldwin University.
Cooper says this same path was taken by the mental patients, and the “serene” view was intended to calm them. Now he shows it off to groups of five or six people at a time, and eventually, he says it would be a nice place to take wedding photos.
In fact, now that the 49-room inn with 27 floor plans, luxurious soaking tubs and its own restaurant is open for business, he says the next phase of the project is redeveloping the old chapel across from the inn, where bricks are sagging and windows are tilting from years of neglect. Miller plans to turn it into a space with bridal suites, a banquet hall, spa, bar and restaurant about a year from now.
On the inn’s terrace, where tables, chairs and matching umbrellas look onto the expansive lawn, Cooper points to a fence around the property. He says rather than using it to keep the patients contained, as some believe, it was used to keep the public out—and the folks behind The Blackburn Inn are ready to let them in.
They hope to use the yard for weddings and other large-scale public events and festivals, he says, including a Saturday barbecue series that kicked off this summer.
While a cookout on the lawn of a former insane asylum may not be appealing to all, Cooper says, “It’s a different opportunity to learn about the history of Virginia.”
And he reports that the property manager, who’s been there 12 years, has yet to experience any paranormal activity, so while “there’s going to be some fascination with the hospital and jail,” says Cooper, you might as well leave your Ouija board at home.