Pennhurst State School

Pennhurst, which sits on the border of both Chester and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania, was an institution for both the mentally and physically disabled . Pennhurst opened in 1908 with high hopes of helping disabled youths throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. However, Pennhurst’s seemingly good intentions became questioned starting in the seventies when rumors of physical and sexual abuse arose. [ [ El Peecho's Pennhurst Page ] ]

Creation and Purpose

It is legal to go into the lower campus, against many people's popular belief. The military owned upper campus however demands no tresspassing.Pennhurst was constructed and opened in 1908 as a state school for the mentally and physically disabled. Pennhurst’s property was vast and consisted of a 1,400 acre site. Created to house 3,500 patients at a time, Pennhurst was one of the largest institutions of its kind in Pennsylvania. Half of the residents were committed to Pennhurst by a court order and the other half were brought by a parent or other guardian. It was devoted strictly to the care, treatment and education of the disabled who’s parents resided in Montgomery, Chester, and the surrounding counties. [ [ Pennhurst State School, Spring City, PA ] ]


Pennhurst consisted of a large amount of staff to help assist in maintaining the facility. This staff included, a board of trustees, medical staff, dental staff, and specialists in psychology, social services, accounting, and various fields of education. The grounds of Pennhurst contained a hospital which had a 300 bed capacity and was maintained by a full nursing staff and two surgeons on call at all times. Also, Pennhurst was all equipped with religious clergy members and farming experts who grew most of the food consumed at Pennhurst State School.NBC's 1968 report on Pennhurst called "Suffer the Little Children this will sum it all up for any of you who are truly wanting an insight of what this place was all about and get the real information you may be seeking. [ [ Pennsylvania Settles Key Suit On Facilities For The Retarded - New York Times ] ]

Property and Grounds

Pennhurst’s 1,400 acre site was basically a self sufficient community. Pennhurst contained everything a small community would need such as a firehouse, general store, barber shop, and even a greenhouse. The buildings of Pennhurst were designed by a leading Philadelphia architect, Horace W Castor, and were named after towns in Pennsylvania such as Chester, and Devon. On the property also lay a power plant which generated all of Pennhurst’s electricity. A cemetery lay on the property as well as baseball and recreational fields for the residents. Many of Pennhurst’s buildings were strictly for storage, however the majority were dormitory and hospital style living quarters for the residents. Most of the buildings were linked by an underground tunnel system designed for transporting the handicapped with no problems.

Controversy and Closing

Pennhurst was often accused of dehumanization and was said to have provided no help to the mentally challenged. The institution had a long history of staff difficulties and a bad image to the public. Pennhurst State School was closed in 1986 because of various allegations of abuse. The allegations caused the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States, claiming that the mentally retarded have a constitutional right to living quarters and an education. The institution was forced to close by July 1, 1986 and move its 460 current residents safely into their home communities, be transferred to another facility if needed. Pennhurst was responsible to discuss plans of treatment with each of it’s patients families to decide what would be the best for the patient. The court case that started a whirlwind of allegations is called Pennhurst State School and Hospital vs. Halderman. Terry Lee Halderman, was a minor resident of the school, and upon release she filed suit in the district court on behalf of herself and all other residents of Pennhurst. The complaint alleged that the conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous. The complaint argued that these living conditions violated the fourteenth amendment, and Pennhurst’s concept of cruel and unusual punishment was in violation of a citizen’s eighth and fourteenth amendment’s rights. After a 32 day trial and an immense investigation, prosecutors concluded that the conditions at Pennhurst were not only dangerous, with physical and mental abuse of its patients, but also inadequate for the care and habilitation for the mentally retarded. Also it was concluded that the physical, mental, and intellectual skills of most patients had deteriorated by the State of Pennsylvania. [ [ Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman ] ]

Pennhurst Preservation Project

"On March 12, 2008, the following petition began circulating among the Pennhurst online community in an effort to save the Administration building which is one of the most predominant buildings on the campus:"

Creating a Memorial at the Pennhurst State School

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 red brick 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, and though a major local employer, its population dwarfed that of surrounding towns.

The administration building has 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 with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Though its now forlorn façades provide little to suggest its importance, the eyes of the entire nation once turned to Pennhurst. Through NBC’s 1968 documentary Suffer the Little Children and the subsequent Supreme Court cases, the nation came to associate these buildings with the dreadful plight of the thousands of Pennhurst residents. Moreover, the nation came to associate Pennhurst with the great sadness of systemic malaise and bureaucratic apathy inflicted upon generations of innocents at similar institutions across the country. Pennhurst’s children and their compatriots across America, like the campus on the hill today, were abused or simply forgotten.

A Place of Hope Amid Despair

Yet Pennhurst was also a place of an American awakening. Part and parcel of a “progressive” era when the solution to dealing with such disability was to quarantine and seclude, Pennhurst, first known as the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic, was once seen as a model institution. But, if only slowly and person-by-person, a growing and maturing society looked at Pennhurst and came to understand that what it once held out as the only right option was in fact hopelessly wrong. The administration’s building’s great oaken double doors slammed shut for the last time in the mid-1980s, closing an era of warehousing the disabled in favor of what we hope to be a more humane community-based care.

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. Just as we remember the sadness, we need also acknowledge these tiny 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;
* and lastly, the fallacy of resignation that comes when we think we are incapable of curing ills larger than ourselves.

We are the living beneficiaries of these lessons from the past embodied in brick in mortar at Pennhurst. As such, we have a solemn duty not only to remember these lessons but to pass them on.

A Case for Preservation

In the process of collecting stories about life and work at Pennhurst, nearly everyone offers the same refrain: a memorial, both to the suffering and the kindness played out at Pennhurst, ought to permanently remain on the site and in the landscape of our cultural memory. The preservation of the administration building—Pennhurst’s iconic structure—is a fitting tribute.

Though the entire Pennhurst campus, built predominantly in 1903-1906, 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 variety of options for preservation of the administration building. While there has been significant deterioration, the building is structurally sound. A program of adaptive reuse could offer profitable new life as well as provide a lasting, living memorial. The building could be used in part for commercial purposes or a community center.

There is reason to believe the developer and the township are open to the idea of preservation as a memorial. 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 such a memorial. However, to make it happen, we must channel our support and direct it to action. To that end, please consider signing the following petition.


External links

* [] - El Peecho Productions : Pennhurst video, pictures, historical documents, interviews and a lot more about Pennhurst State School
* [] - Dark Knights By: WebmasterLC: Pennhurst video's, pictures, and more.
* [] - Official Pennhurst State School MySpace By: Sarah McConnell: Pennhurst information, links, images and updates.

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