Preserving Pennsylania: A Journey Through the Last 20 Years, Part 15

Preservation Pennsylvania has released their “Pennsylvania At-Risk: Twenty-Year Retrospective of Pennsylvania’s Endangered Historic Properties, Where Are They Now” edition. It’s a fascinating look at preservation in action and we’ll be posting a look at each property in a series of posts over the next several months.

Preservation Pennsylvania established the annual Pennsylvania At Risk list in 1992, making us the first statewide preservation organization in the United States to have an annual roster of endangered historic properties. Since 1992, we have listed and worked to preserve more than 200 endangered historic resources, including individual buildings, historic districts and thematic resources statewide. For 2012, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of our organization, we are presenting a 20-year retrospective edition of Pennsylvania At Risk. In this issue, we revisit some of the amazing historic places across the Commonwealth, some of which have been rescued from extinction through preservation and rehabilitation efforts, and others that still need our help.

Approximately 18% of Pennsylvania’s At Risk properties have been lost, having been demolished or substantially altered. Another 32% have been saved or are in a condition or situation where the identified threat no longer poses a problem for the historic property. Approximately 50% of the 201 At Risk resources remain in danger, or we have not been able to confirm their current status as either saved or lost.

By monitoring these properties over the past 20 years and working with individuals and organizations trying to preserve them, we have learned many valuable lessons. Those lessons are called out throughout this publication.

 • AT RISK •

2008 — Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Chester County

Chester County

After five years of planning and construction, the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic (Pennhurst) opened in 1908. Situated on 1,400 acres of rolling hills overlooking the Schuylkill River, Pennhurst was the model mental facility of its time. The self-sustaining campus of 25 buildings included administrative and medical facilities, dormitories, workshops, a firehouse, a general store, a barber shop, a greenhouse, a fully functioning farm and recreational facilities such as a baseball field and playground, and was intended to isolate its residents from the rest of society. Just four years after its completion, the facility was overcrowded; it housed 3,500 patients at its peak of occupancy in space federal regulations later determined to be habitable for just 700.

More than 50 years later, Pennhurst became infamous for its unsanitary conditions and degrading and sometimes abusive treatment of the patients it was meant to protect.  Dormitories were overcrowded, and facilities designed for daytime play and exercise were packed tightly with beds. Staff was overextended and not able to give their patients the care they needed. Those with the most severe disabilities were often confined to cribs or beds with little or no treatment or education. Receiving insufficient attention and care, the physical, mental and intellectual health of patients often deteriorated.

In 1968, the NBC investigative report Suffer the Little Children brought national attention to the conditions under which the mentally and physically disabled of Pennsylvania were living, exposing Pennhurst as a notorious example of a national trend. In the 1970s, a series of landmark lawsuits arising from Pennhurst led to reforms that put Pennsylvania at the vanguard of disability advocacy. One lawsuit reaching the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the forced institutionalization of disabled people was unconstitutional. This ruling against Pennhurst established the foundation for reforms in similar institutions across America and became a benchmark for safeguarding the rights of mentally and physically disabled persons in the United States. As a result, Pennhurst is now regarded as the epicenter for the modern disability rights movement. Despite its tumultuous past, Pennhurst is significant as an example of an early 20th century state institution reflecting American beliefs and practices regarding the care of the disabled.

Pennhurst closed in 1986, and its 460 remaining patients were discharged or transferred to other facilities. Since that time, Pennhurst has stood vacant. In 2008, a developer acquired the majority of the formerly state-owned campus and concluded that the historic buildings should be demolished to make way for development. To date, the buildings have not been demolished; two buildings have been stabilized for use as a haunted attraction, Pennhurst Asylum. Many disability advocates have opposed the operation of Pennhurst as a haunted attraction, feeling that it portrays people with disabilities in a demeaning and degrading fashion, capitalizing on a dark past without interpreting its meaning. A new owner assumed responsibility for the site in 2012 and is interested in finding development partners to facilitate the site’s long-term preservation. A local group of concerned citizens formed Preserve Pennhurst (now known as the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance, or PM&PA), which has spearheaded the effort to preserve the campus and history of the institution. PM&PA is working to raise awareness in the local community and demonstrate that preservation and adaptive reuse of the campus is possible. The group worked with a wide range of partners to prepare a Reuse Design Feasibility Study. That was followed by completion of market studies intended to determine what the redevelopment potential was in the area. Most recently, an economic feasibility study was completed for the property. These studies concluded that rehabilitation as market rate housing is feasible and would allow 11 of the campus’s most important historic buildings to be reused, while allowing for compatible development on the remaining 75 acres. There is particular interest in the community for age-restricted and senior housing. Control within the entity that owns Pennhurst has recently shifted, and the new manager has welcomed the opportunity to explore preservation and reuse. PM&PA is now seeking preservation-oriented development partners interested in utilizing the planning done so far and putting it into action: “Finally, there is an opening for a creative developer to restore this place, so long a white elephant on our landscape and our collective conscience. Reusing these buildings is, of course, a preservation win with all of the environmental and economic benefits that entails. But here, perhaps more than at any other place, reuse is palliative and regenerative in a way that clear-cutting them could never be,” said PM&PA founder Nathaniel Guest. PM&PA hopes that a ortion of the property will be used as a Center for Conscience, to preserve the lessons and stories of those forced to live at Pennhurst. The PM&PA hopes to create a modest memorial and museum on the campus, while reusing the property in a manner that provides economic and environmental benefits to the region.