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SPIRITS MAKE MONEY



Published: Sun, January 1, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

Former asylum in West Virginia now a booming tourism business

By VICKI SMITH

Associated Press

WESTON, W.Va.

Normally, Rebecca Jordan will take all the free TV exposure she can get for the psychiatric hospital that she’s turned into a tourist attraction known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

SyFy’s “Ghost Hunters.” Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” and “Ghost Stories.” Discovery’s “Forgotten Planet.” She even hosted an episode of CMT’s “My Big Redneck Wedding” on the 307-acre grounds.

But she drew the line when producers for A&E’s “Paranormal State” called. They didn’t want to meet the ghosts behind the 2 Ω-foot thick walls, she says. They wanted to get rid of them.

“And I was like, ‘Well, maybe you’re not the right fit for me. We do not want to get rid of our spirits! We want them to stay in the building!’

“Unless they want to go home,” she adds with a laugh. “And then they can go home. I’m not trying to keep anybody here who doesn’t want to be here.”

Spirits, after all, make money. And the property that Jordan’s father bought three years ago for $1.5 million is now generating enough revenue from overnight public ghost hunts at $100 a person and other types of tours to pay a staff of 33 and fund a never-ending list of maintenance and repair projects.

The main Gothic Revival building is one of the world’s largest hand-cut sandstone structures and a National Historic Landmark. Virginia legislators authorized its construction in 1858, but it wasn’t until 1864 that the first patients were admitted.

The hospital repeatedly changed hands during the Civil War, ending up with West Virginia when it became a separate state. Originally intended for 250 patients, it housed nearly 10 times that many during the 1950s.

Known in later years as Weston Hospital, it eventually closed in 1994, when the state moved patients to a more modern facility. Then it stood empty for nearly 15 years, inhabited only by rats, security guards and the occasional paintball-playing trespasser.

In 2008, Jordan’s father Joe, a Morgantown asbestos abatement and demolition contractor, bought it at auction for $1.5 million. He’s since sunk at least another $1 million into the place, hiring crew after crew to repair the showpiece clock tower, the disintegrating floors and the forever-leaking roofs.

Running the asylum is a family affair.

Rebecca handles marketing and sales. Her historian husband applies for grants. Her brother handles advertising and maintains the website. Her 13-year-old daughter, Breonna Childress, is a full-time volunteer who hosts overnight birthday-party ghost hunts with her friends and talks about the day she’ll inherit the business.

Mainly by capitalizing on public interest in the paranormal, the Jordans have lured more than 115,000 visitors to the property since they bought it.

Chris Richards, director of the Lewis County Convention and Visitors Bureau, calls the following “phenomenal,” noting that people are traveling from all over the world to visit Weston.

The Jordan family has experience with mental health issues, she says, and its exhibits educate people on treatments once considered state of the art and now considered horrifying .

The key to the Jordans’ success so far has been a diversity of offerings.

In the spring, Rebecca will open three new museum rooms, plus a Macabre Museum “with all the oddities, all the strange stories” in the basement. She is also working with bus companies on a “Kooky Christmas” and dinner-theater tour that will keep people coming through next winter.

But she faces on expensive hurdle: The unheated building is frigid.

Employee Eric Skinner leans over and fake-whispers in Jordan’s ear.

“If you heat it,” he tells her, “they will come.”


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