Preserving Pennhurst as a Memorial to the Past and an Investment in the Future
A Call to Preserve: Remembering the Past, Investing in the Future
A Case for Preservation
In the process of collecting stories about life and work at Pennhurst, nearly everyone offers the same refrain: a memorial to the suffering, kindness, and the resiliency of the human spirit all played out at Pennhurst, ought to permanently remain on the site and in the landscape of our cultural memory. Preservation at Pennhurst is a fitting way to remember our past.
But also as an investment in our future, we must consider preserving as much of that once beautiful and theraputic campus as possible. There are real economic and environmental benefits for communities who require preservation as part of their development plans. Those benefits--and the options for adaptive reuse--increase exponentially the more we preserve.
According to Preservation North Carolina, for every $1M spent on preservation versus new construction, each of the following is true: Five to nine more new construction jobs are created; 4.7 new jobs are created elsewhere in the community; $120,000 more initially stays in community; retail sales in the community increase $34,000. As preservation is labor rather than materials intensive, preservation money goes to hire local workers and stays in the community, whereas new construction money is more likely to go to far-off manufacturers and leave the community.
Tearing down buildings as substantially constructed as those at Pennhurst is environmentally irresponsible. It wastes millions of dollars of energy and materials already embodies in the structures; it will require a huge expenditure of fuel to demolish and the debris will overburden our landfills with potentially toxic combinations of materials. The materials used in new construction are highly toxic and energy-consuming to produce. Their use is irresponsible if old matrerials can be reused. Lastly, Pennhurst incorporates design elements that are environmentally friendly and expensive to replicate in new structures.
Preservation techniques can abate or encapsulate hazardous materials as or more cheaply than can be done in demolition. While preservation does not offer a get-rich-quick opportunity, tax incentives associated with it make it an economically feasible option for developers.
For the Forgotten
Reared against a cloud-studded sky high above a graceful curve in the Schuykill River, a mysterious, hauntingly beautiful, seemingly forgotten place casts its shadow into the valley below. It is the fabled Pennhurst State School and Hospital. Its venerable administration building, a formidable Jacobean Revival monument, has presided over the sprawling campus for over a century. At its height, Pennhurst was a self-sustaining community, with its own farms, power plant, and fire company, all staffed in no small part by the school’s thousands of intellectually and developmentally disabled residents. Also a major local employer, Pennhurst’s population dwarfed that of surrounding towns.
The campus buildings have come to symbolize Pennhurst—not just as a public institution, but as the setting of countless private and deeply personal stories that tell the tale of how we as a people have treated those we have defined as “others.”
The now forlorn façades provide little to suggest that the eyes of the entire nation were once intimately focused on the campus sprawled out under the administration building’s watch. Through Bill Baldini’s 1968 NBC documentary "Suffer the Little Children" and subsequent Supreme Court cases, the nation saw in these red brick structures the dreadful plight of thousands of Pennhurst residents.
The architecture’s pampered detail disguised a systemic malaise and bureaucratic apathy imperiling generations of confined innocents. “Granite walls of ignorance and social blindness,” as Baldini called them, masked the neglectful decay of Pennhurst’s residents. They, like the campus on the hill today, were intentionally forgotten.
A Place of Hope Amid Despair
Yet Pennhurst was also a place of an American awakening. Originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic, Pennhurst was once seen as a model institution. It was a product of a self-proclaimed “progressive” era when the solution to dealing with disability was forced segregation and sterilization. Since the 18th century—a similarly self-proclaimed age of enlightenment—people with illness and disabilities were labeled “defectives.” As late as 1820, such “defectives,” along with other dependent “deviant” groups such as aged paupers and the sick poor, were grouped together and sold to the lowest bidder. A similarly conceived philosophy of disposal at the lowest cost was played out time and again at Pennhurst.
If only slowly and person-by-person, a growing and maturing society reconsidered this philosophy. History written at Pennhurst demonstrated that what was once held out as the only right option was in fact hopelessly wrong.
In contrast to the narratives of intense and prolonged tragedy, Pennhurst’s largely untold stories of deep compassion and great character evidence a rise of kind conscience that inspires yet today. One Pennhurst staff member recalls how she and others would volunteer their time on Saturdays and Sundays to clean the residents—most of whom could not toilet themselves—since the state budget did not allocate for housekeeping services on weekends. Another describes sharing holidays at her home with Pennhurst residents whose own families had long since stopped visiting.
But, also as shared by a former employee, there is another, rarely considered aspect to the Pennhurst story that is perhaps its most important: the indomitable and unbreakable power of the human spirit displayed every day by the residents themselves.
Despite the obstacles institutionalization presented, many of Pennhurst’s residents found ways to prosper. “They lived lives of inner dignity and grace” in an ammonia-washed world designed to strip that dignity from them. “This was especially true of the individuals who made up the ‘working patient’ group. Day in and day out, they proved their worth helping to care for their worse-off peers by assisting the paid staff in nearly every aspect of life at Pennhurst. “Even the most severely disabled found ways to assert their individuality and retain their humanity in the face of a system that dehumanized them in a million different ways. Many people who were told for years that they could not succeed beyond Pennhurst's gates proved the ‘professionals’ wrong, going on to live independent lives of worth and value” in the community long after the administration building’s great oaken doors slammed shut for the last time.
Just as we remember the sadness, we need also acknowledge these quiet triumphs of the human spirit.
What Pennhurst has to Teach Us
In a time when sound bytes distill the human story to a trite near-falsity, Pennhurst offers a story of dauntingly rich complexity.
But the themes Pennhurst represents come clearly:
* the power of conscience-driven people to do the right thing against the odds;
* the cost of apathy and willful blindness;
* the danger of classifying those different from us as “other”;
* the resulting propensity to treat the “other” in a manner unbefitting of the common standards of human dignity;
* the fallacy of resignation that comes when we think we are incapable of curing ills larger than ourselves.
* and lastly, the true strength of the human spirit
We are the living beneficiaries of these lessons from the past embodied in brick and mortar at Pennhurst. As such, we have a solemn duty not only to remember these lessons but to pass them on.
Though the entire Pennhurst campus was deemed eligible for the National Historic Register, time, vandals, and vagrants have taken their toll. Recently, the property was sold and there are fears that what remains of the Pennhurst property will be sacrificed to the onslaught of suburban sprawl. The long endured policy of forgetting about Pennhurst—its residents, its story—cannot persist.
Join us in overcoming complacency and putting aside notions that preservation here is impossible. Preservation is very possible and we can do it if our efforts are concerted. We are presented with a variety of options for preservation. While there has been significant deterioration, the buildings are structurally sound. A program of adaptive reuse could offer profitable new life as well as provide a lasting, living memorial.
There is reason to believe the developer and the township are open to the idea of preservation. The developer himself has said he would like to find a use for the property of which local residents will be proud. Certainly, we can all be proud of a memorial annd adaptive reuse. However, to make it happen, we must channel our support and direct it to action. To that end, please consider signing the following petition.
Additionally, please consider sharing your Pennhurst stories by going to http://www.preservepennhurst.com or through the forum on this website.
We remember the lessons of the past and honor our duty to pass them on to the future. We ask that the developer and lawmakers do the same by supporting this preservation effort.
Understanding the environmental, economic, and cultural benefits of preservation, we demand that any changes to the Pennhurst site incorporate both the creation of a memorial and the adaptive reuse of all campus structures.
In solemn and concerted effort,