Reprinted from the Glencoe Museum Web Site: http://www.radfordpl.org/glencoe/history/st_albanssanatorium.html
It was the vision and energy of a young man that started St. Albans Sanatorium – just like 20 years before when George Miles started his boys’ school. Dr. John C. King had been superintendent of the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum – nowadays called Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute (SWVMHI) – in Marion. He was presumably not satisfied with how things were run in Marion and set out to realize his vision of a facility that could produce a higher percentage of recovery for mentally-ill patients.
Starting in Germany, the treatment and perception of mentally ill patients had just begun to be considered a scientific endeavor. Prior to this period, “psychiatry” was a mere administration of people with socially unacceptable and untreatable behaviors.
It was only at the end of the 19th century that German pioneer Emil Kraepelin first classified mental diseases and described conditions like manic depression or schizophrenia. Kraepelin believed that psychiatric diseases are mainly caused by biological and genetic disorders, a view that is widely shared today. In 1915, however, psychiatry was in its infancy; the treatment of mental illness was not one of the most highly regarded fields of medicine.
To realize his dream, Dr. King took considerable risks, both career-wise as well as financially. With $500 of his own money, he formed a corporation and with $16,000 in borrowed funds he acquired the Saint Albans buildings along with 56 acres of land. The buildings were thoroughly renovated and, on January 15, 1916, the first four patients were admitted.
In the tradition of other treatment facilities of the time, St. Albans Sanatorium included a farm which, according to an old brochure, “[…] affords ample space for out-of-door games, diversional exercises and employment, also vegetable and flower gardens, an adequate dairy herd and extensive poultry-raising, all of which are interesting and helpful to the patients.”
St. Albans Sanatorium struggled initially with financial problems. However, Dr. King and his wife kept the hospital open and gradually expanded its services and reputation. The building of the Radford Arsenal and the rapid population growth associated with it had a profound impact on St. Albans. Patient numbers rose and, since it was the only hospital in the community at the time, it also provided general medical care.
To accommodate all these patients, the staff worked six days a week while living in quarters provided by the hospital. By 1945, the total number of patients treated during its first 29 years was 6509 and its staff numbered 48.
The hospital continued to grow in the following decades. St. Albans became a fully recognized hospital in 1960, and started opening outpatient clinics in Roanoke, Blacksburg, and Beckley, WV. In 1980, in order to stay up-to-date with advancing technology, parts of St. Albans were relocated into a more modern $8 million facility. In the late 1980s, the institution on the New River was the Commonwealth’s only private, full service, not-for-profit psychiatric hospital. It was a source of pride for many people living in Radford and Pulaski County.
The glory days of the old St. Albans were, however, almost over. In the 1990s, the hospital became part of the Carilion Health System, which moved ahead with plans to relocate it to another site, eventually building the “New River Medical Center” at its current location off of Interstate 81. The old buildings and the surrounding 78 acres became a gift from Carilion to the Radford University Foundation in 2004. Whereas the addition houses RU West Campus, the historic buildings have been virtually empty ever since. With the planned sale of the property, the future of this landmark – a center of learning and healing for more than a century – is still uncertain.
Two men put their dreams into St. Albans. George Miles wanted to establish an elite boys’ school overlooking the New River. Dr. John King aspired to make a better psychiatric care facility. It was their visions that put St. Albans on the map. Maybe it is time for another one.
UPDATE ON ST. ALBANS (August 2011)
In November of 2008 SHAH Development LLC purchased the property at auction. Today the main structure stands as a shell of its former glory. Long term plans for this magnificent facility are still uncertain. However with the support of friends, and other interested groups throughout the Commonwealth, there is hope that this magnificent building can be saved from destruction.