What to do with the DeJarnette Center

There has been much debate in Staunton concerning what to do with the dilapidated DeJarnette Center. The historic brick buildings are located near the Frontier Culture Museum, and they are one of the first things visitors see when they get off Interstate 81. The general consensus is that something needs to be done, but what?

Some believe that the buildings need to be preserved and renovated because of their beautiful and historic architecture. Others want to knock down the structure and build another strip mall to bring more retail sales and revenue tax to Staunton. Then there are those that want to destroy the DeJarnette Center’s because of its “dubious history.”

According to Wikipedia
“Joseph Spencer DeJarnette (September, 1866 – September 3, 1957) was the director of Western State Hospital (located in Staunton, Virginia) from 1905 to 1943. He was a vocal proponent of eugenics, specifically, the compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill. The DeJarnette Center in Staunton was named for him. The facility has since been renamed to the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents due to DeJarnette’s support of eugenics.”

So what do I think should be done with the DeJarnette Center? Even though the buildings aren’t located near Staunton’s historic downtown district, I think that we should preserve and rennovate these historic buildings. Developers are already working with the Western State Hospital, so why not do the same with the DeJarnette buildings? I realize that the buildings’ architecture does not match the beautiful facades of Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Sheetz, and Chili’s, but historic buildings should not destroyed if they can be saved/restored.

Would a mixed-use development work in that area? Probably not. I can’t see people wanting to live near the hustle-and-bustle of Wal-Mart. The best option would be to convert the buildings into a museum, hotel, or office space.

Earlier this month I read a letter-to-the-editor in the Daily Newsleader about Staunton passing up on the opportunity to bring in the the Museum of the Confederacy from Richmond. According to the letter “the Museum of the Confederacy pulls in 50,000 people a year and generates an estimated $500,000 in sales taxes annually.” Unfortunately, it looks as if the museum will relocate in New Market — which probably makes more sense because of the proximity of historic battlefields.

Nonetheless, the fact that Staunton was considering adopting the museum is a good sign. The City needs to carefully consider all of its options before constructing another strip mall.


  1. Alison

    Unless there is going to be a museum about the history of eugenics in Virginia and the world at this site, preserving it is a slap in the face to the Virginia citizens who were victims of eugenics who are still living and to the memory of those who are gone. Would you want to preserve any other historic building where such evil occured?

  2. menef79

    Alison, I am in complete agreement with you. My great-grandmother was a patient at WSH from 1929 to 1943. Suspiciously, even today, current anti-psychotics can cause patients to become sterile. It seems these ogres continue to move on with their schemes.

  3. Anonymous

    My family and I were captivated by the beauty of the architecture @ The DeJarnette Center while visiting the Frontier Museum. I would love to see it ‘brought back to life’ in a special way to maintain the beauty of the building – despite the nature of the facilities history.

  4. Anonymous

    I was a patient there in 1987 (I was 13). I spent about 4 months there. Although I was there against my will (I was, in my opinion, just being a normal teenager, but my parents didn’t see it that way)it really wasn’t that bad: the staff seemed to genuinely care about the patients, we had plenty of freedom as well as lots of structured activities, and the overall feeling was one of a boarding school or summer camp. While I was glad to leave and go back to my normal life after four months, I didn’t leave with any negative feelings toward the facility or anyone there. I recently traveled back to Staunton and was dismayed to see the structure in such a sad condition. Aside from the controversial name of the building (which can be changed), it would be a shame to lay waste to something architecturally significant that still has hope of preservation.

  5. Anonymous

    I worked at the center 1983-1989. I taught the autistic children and loved each and every one of them. I am of the opinion the buildings need to be preserved. We had one of the best autistic schools in the state and one of the few in the U.S.

  6. Anonymous

    It would be a beautiful world, indeed, if we could lose to history all that seems distasteful. The DeJarnette/Peery Buildings should NEVER be lost to history because of questionable acts perfermed in them. I have spent countless hours going through state archivre looking for anything to help retain the preservation of these buildings and it CAN be done. Again, just because we don’t like somesthing, we don’t ignore it – we educate and hope to never repeat the same mistakes. DeJarnette ws not a terrible man. He was a product of the medical thinking if his time and very determined to make a name for himself in that area. Most of can agree, with hindsight, that the process was horrific. But nearly every state in the Union was practicig some version of eugenics – some more drastic than others. I agree that what went on at WSH was questionable, destroying the physical history of it does not erase what happened. A museum, with the TRUTH, is in order.

  7. lglegli

    Well, I agree whole-heartedly with Alison here…when it comes to “that place”, the answer should be obvious! TEAR IT DOWN NOW!
    Why on earth would we knowingly continue to allow the memorialization of such criminal acts and the keep the memory of that man around for all to view!
    We can acknowledge what happened, learn from it, and vow to NEVER allow such a person or movement to gain acceptance anywhere in the United States again starting with the Commonwealth of Virginia leading the way.
    To do anything less, I feel is such disrespect to those unfortunate children who were victims of that institutions wrongdoing policies and practices, some of which are still alive today to tell the tale of disrespect and anguish.
    There is nothing worthwhile about the building that warrants such a debate.
    If the preservation of an institution from hell has risen above the respect that victimized citizens of this Commonwealth deserve, and then the appearance that it gives is that these people do not matter, their families do not matter, we owe them nothing even though they paid their taxes like everyone else.
    If you look at how we view the Holocaust now, yes the institutions where the crimes were carried out are now destroyed, but the memory remains in the form of a memorial to all of those victims who suffered the unspeakable acts at the hands of their caretakers. The same applies here…its not different.
    That said, you do not keep the buildings around that brought such misery and suffering to a whole population just because you like the architecture!!!!
    Find other buildings around the Commonwealth that have a more respectable history than that place if it’s to serve as a memorial. I really don’t see how anyone could consciously put their head down at night in that place knowing that kids were brutalized, beaten, experimented on, sterilized against their will, some died, and probably worse…in fact, the longer the county delays in destroying the buildings tells me that they must condone the behavior, otherwise they would be gone…I will push until my dying day for them to be gone and all those who suffered there to be recognized and honored as they should be…We owe them that much! After all, one can never erase a memory and they will suffer for the remainder of their lives, why should they be reminded of that and why should anyone profit by it at their expense?

  8. ababab

    lglegli I would like to respond to your post. For the same reason you can go to concentration camps in germany should we restore the building. I am a former employee – I never worked at the old buildings just the new one. If all we have are words in a book we will never be able to see it the way the patients did. we have come along way in mental health, our history is not always prity but it is ours. thanks

  9. uwillneverknow

    The buildings are architecturally amazing. I would be deeply saddened if they were gone. I do not agree with the horrible acts that happened there but I am sure some good things may have happened there as well judging by some of the comments posted. You can’t put the blame on a building because of what happened inside of them. Tearing the buildings down will never erase what happened there. If this is the reason we’d get rid of this building maybe we should re-evaluate some other buildings as well. Just a thought…

  10. Teenage Nerd

    Wow! I just got on your site because I was searching for info about the Dejarnette Center. For years I’ve seen those buildings every time I’ve gone to Walmart, and I was just wishing they could be used for something good. Yes, it is horrible to think about the things that happened there, but is that a good reason to destroy it? Why not use it for something good? I would love to see that horrible place turned around and made into something beautiful. Don’t tear down that beautiful architecture! I want to see those buildings used for a good cause!!! Is there anything I can do to help?

  11. Poodle

    AMEN!!! Teenage Nerd!! I must say I totally agree with you. Despite the unthinkable things that took place there years ago, I would hate to see it come down. Every time I pass that building on I81 I can’t help but look at it and wish that something good would happen with it. PLEASE DON’T Demolish the buildings. The past will always be there and the memories of it, but I believe we can take those buildings and turn them into something good with wich to serve our community. AND AGAIN, PLEASE DON’T DEMOLISH IT.

  12. faithnados

    I also was just looking up info on the old DeJarnettes building, and found these posts. I agree with those that say we should renovate it to be some type of museum. And like a lot of people have said before me, I am sure there were many horrible things that happened there…many years ago. I find the building interesting and even though there were horrible things that took place you can only learn from peoples mistakes. Trying to put it away and forget it does not teach anyone or inform anyone of what happened, which is what I believe should happen when there are such horrific events. For example, the Holocaust, it was much larger in scale (compared to what took place at DJ) but how would anyone know about it unless it was made open? By making a memorial/museum for those that were lost/hurt/treated, whatever the case may be, you are not defacing them but making their pain real and known to everyone. When I was a kid my mother and father both worked their, and I even faintly remember visiting it a few times. I have myself worked for the new building with the changed name Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents, so I have had my fair share of stories and first case events or the treatment of the “mentally ill”. I do not feel our histories mistakes should be blown off but taught to everyone, so hopefully we can learn for the future.

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