Central Lunatic Asylum

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Central Lunatic Asylum
Established 1882
Construction Began 1885
Opened 1885
Current Status Active
Building Style Kirkbride Plan(Demolished)/ Cottage Plan
Location Petersburg, VA
Peak Patient Population 4,855 in 1958
Alternate Names
  • Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane
  • Central State Hospital (Current)


The origin of Central State Hospital dates back to the close of the Civil War when in April 1865, Congress created the Freedman's Bureau to establish hospitals, schools and other facilities for the African-American population.

In December 1869, a former Confederate Facility, known as Howard's Grove Hospital, was designated as a mental health hospital for African-Americans. The name was later changed to Central Lunatic Asylum. In June 1870, the General Assembly passed an act incorporating the Central Lunatic Asylum as an organized state institution. When the Commonwealth of Virginia assumed ownership, there were "123 insane persons and 100 paupers, not insane" housed at the asylum. Many patients arrived at Howard's Grove by way of civil commitments made by local judges at the request of friends and family. Other patients were removed from local jails and criminally committed. The asylum was overseen by a superintendent who answered to the Court of Directors. As with other state institutions, physicians, nurses and matrons were employed to care for patients. The buildings at Howard's Grove during the period of 1870 to 1885 were described as being of plain, if not crude, wood construction. They were divided into sections according to the patient's particular ailment or behavior. Residents were fed in their cells, as no dining facility existed at that time. There was no sewage system, and light was supplied by kerosene lamps and candles.

In 1882, the Mayfield Farm in Dinwiddie County was purchased by the City of Petersburg for $15,000 and presented to the Commonwealth for the development of a new mental health hospital. The first patients (a total of 373) were transferred to the present site of the hospital on March 22, 1885. Ten years later, the population had doubled and by the end of 1950, there were 4,043 inpatients with 691 on parole or escape status. Construction of the new facility near Petersburg was completed in early spring 1885. Additional tracts of land were purchased and new buildings were constructed regularly thereafter, as the number of patients increased. The new construction later included a special building to house the criminally insane apart from the rest of the hospital population. This section of the campus would later be referred to as the Forensic Mental Health Unit. An early institutional history notes that treatment at Central Lunatic Asylum during the 1890s was humane and emphasized the value of work and the benefits of recreation. However, practices at the facility also included seclusion, mechanical restraints, and the administering of hypnotics.

By 1894, Central Lunatic Asylum was officially renamed Central State Hospital. This piece of legislation also altered the names of the other mental health facilities in Virginia in and attempt to inspire a more positive image of the institutions, and of mental health treatment in general. It is important to note that another state institution located in Staunton, Virginia went by the name Central Lunatic Asylum between the years of 1861 and 1865. Its name was later changed to Western Lunatic Asylum, and is a separate facility with no connection to the Richmond/Petersburg hospital for African Americans.

During the 1950's, a Maximum Security Forensic Unit was built for the evaluation and treatment of patients referred by the courts. Within a few years, the average inpatient population had reached 4,800 and overcrowding in the old unsafe ward buildings had become a major problem. A geriatric treatment center was also erected for the care of the chronically ill and bedridden. This was the first in a series of five treatment buildings constructed specifically for geriatric services. With the improvement in community services, the Barrow Geriatric Center was closed in the summer of 1985.

The years between 1962 and 1968 brought many changes to CSH. Hospital services and facilities were upgraded and four adult treatment buildings were erected. The early sixties also saw the beginning of treatment for adolescents and the first alcohol abuse treatment program. From its founding until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Central State Hospital served and treated only African-American Mentally Ill, Mentally Retarded, Geriatric, and Criminally Insane from the entire state of Virginia. In 1967 the Hospital opened its doors to accept patients regardless of race or national origin and only from the Central Virginia area.

In 1971, Mentally Retarded patients at Central State Hospital were transferred to a new and separate facility constructed on the campus specifically for the the treatment of the Mentally Retarded. Central State Hospital still operates as a state-run institution in the same general location as it did in 1885. Though its clientele, medical practices, and appearance have changed over time, the mission of Central State Hospital remains much the same: "to provide state of the art mental health care and treatment to forensic and civilly committed patients" in central Virginia. Southside Virginia Training Center continues to treat nearly 600 severely and profoundly retarded patients.


Main Image Gallery: Central Lunatic Asylum