In 1903, the Pennsylvania Legislature authorized the creation of the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic and a commission was organized to take into consideration the number and status of the feeble-minded and epileptic persons in the state and determine a placement for construction to care for these residents.
This commission discovered 1,146 feeble-minded persons in insane hospitals and 2,627 in almshouses, county-care hospitals, reformatories, and prisons and were in immediate need of specialized institutional care.
The legislation stated that the buildings would be in two groups, one for the educational and industrial department, and one for the custodial or asylum department. The institution was required to accommodate no less than five hundred inmates or patients, with room for additions.
Construction and Design
From 1903 to 1908 the first buildings were constructed on 633.913 acres (2.56535 km2) of Crab Hill in Spring City, Pennsylvania, Chester County on what was referred to as the lower campus. Out of the first few buildings constructed, 'F' was the Girl's Dining Room, 'G' was the Kitchen and Store Room, 'H', 'I' and 'K' were a Cottage for Girls, 'N' was the Boys' Dining Room, 'P' was the Teachers Home, 'Q', T', 'U' and 'V' were a Cottage for Boys, 'R' was a School, 'W' was Laundry and Sewing, and 'X' was the Power House.
'P' was used as a temporary Administration building until the institution's opening in 1918 along with the opening of ‘L’ and ‘M’ in 1919. In 1921, Whitman and Wilson I and II were constructed along with Penn Hall for employee housing; in 1929, the Assembly building was complete and functioned as the gymnasium and auditorium.
The buildings on lower campus are currently labeled with letters such as 'F', 'I', 'K', 'P', 'Q', 'R', 'N', 'U', 'V', 'T', 'W' and 'X' with names later assigned in the 1960's (see below).
In 1930, the first buildings on the upper campus, otherwise known as the Female Colony, were completed and named Pershing, Buchanan, Audubon and Keystone. Capitol Hall was erected after World War II along with Devon constructed on lower campus. Horizon Hall opened later in 1971.
Lower Campus Buildings
Administration, Philadelphia, Quaker, Rockwell, Franklin, Nobel, Union, Vincennes, Tinicum, Industry, Penn, Devon, Mayflower, Limerick, Assembly, Storeroom, Laundry, Whitman, Wilson I, Wilson II, Hershey, Dietary
Upper Campus Buildings
Pershing, Buchanan, Audubon, Keystone, Capitol, Horizon
Power House, Treatment Plant, Director's House, Green House
The older buildings, designed by Phillip H. Johnson, were two-storied, and made of red brick, terra cotta and granite trimmings. They were connected by fire-proof tunnels with walkways on top of the tunnels for the use of transporting residents with a parallel steam piping system, and were distributed on the 1,400-acre (5.7 km2) campus in the cottage plan formation. The buildings were designed to provide a large number of small rooms occupied by from two to three beds, a few small dormitories with from eight to ten beds, and a large exercising day room. George Lovatt was the architect for several of the buildings constructed post-1937.
The central Administration building has two side-porte-cocheres, a front portico and a copper cupola in the center of the roof. The hospital building, Whitman and Wilson I and II are not tunnel connected nor is Penn Hall and the Power House. The remaining cottage buildings are 'L' and 'I' shaped with the exception of Dietary which 'Y'shaped is and Devon Hall which is 'H' shaped.
The Pennsylvania Railroad created a Pennhurst Station on its Schuylkill Division concurrent to accommodate Pennhurst. Coal and other supplies were delivered by rail for decades to operate the power house. Tracks are still visible under the pavement behind Dietary and Devon Hall, which allowed boxcars to be brought directly onto the main campus. The railroad tracks have been removed and are now part of the Schuylkill River Trail
The Superintendent reported to the Board of Trustees that:
It is without question absolutely wrong to place the feeble-minded and epileptic in the same institution. They are not the same; they are as different, one from the other, as day is from night. They are mentally, physically and morally incompatible, and require entirely different treatment.
The mission of the institution was clarified once again and only people with mental disabilities were to be admitted. Recreation of the train tracks has started and they are working to create a working train transportation system.
On November 23, 1908, "Patient number 1" was admitted to the hospital. Within four years of operation, Pennhurst was already overcrowded and under pressure[who?] to admit immigrants, orphans and criminals.
Residents were classified into mental categories of imbecile or insane, into physical categories of epileptic or healthy, and into dental categories of good, poor or treated teeth when admitted.
Physical Condition of Children
Some of the sensorial and functional anomalies, vices of constitution and habit, and disorders of volition common to the feeble-minded admitted to Pennhurst were Strabismus, defective sight and/or hearing, mute, semi-mute, imperfect speech, paralytic, epileptic, blind, imperfect gait, imperfect prehension, deformity of face, head, limbs and/or feet, microcephalic or hydrocephalic head, and offensive habits.
The branches of industry which residents were assigned to were mattress making, shoe making and repair, grading, farming, laundry, domestic duties, sewing, baking, butchering, painting, and working in the store.
Segregation and Eugenics
In 1913, the legislature appointed a Commission for the Care of the Feeble-Minded which stated that the disabled were unfit for citizenship and posed a menace to the peace, and thus recommended a program of custodial care. Furthermore, the Commission desired to prevent the intermixing of the genes of those imprisoned with the general population. In the Biennial Report to the Legislature submitted by the Board of Trustees, Pennhurst's Chief Physician quoted Henry H. Goddard, a leading eugenicist, as follows:
Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal. The general public, although more convinced today than ever before that it is a good thing to segregate the idiot or the distinct imbecile, they have not as yet been convinced as to the proper treatment of the defective delinquent, which is the brighter and more dangerous individual.
In 1916, the Board of Trustees initiated a plan to increase the capacity of the Institution by constructing cottages specifically for females to segregate them from the males, in part to prevent pregnancies.
In 1968, conditions at Pennhurst were exposed in a five-part television news report anchored by local CBS10 correspondent Bill Baldini. "Suffer the Little Children".
In 1983, nine employees were indicted on charges ranging from slapping and beating patients (including some in wheelchairs) to arranging for patients to assault each other.
The Halderman Case, which resulted in the closure of the institution, also detailed widespread patient abuse.
A class-action case was filed against Pennhurst State School on behalf of its patients. The case was heard by U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick, who in 1977 ruled that the conditions at the institution violated patients' constitutional rights. Pennhurst State School was ultimately closed in 1987. Its 460 patients were discharged or transferred to other facilities in a process known as deinstitutionalization that lasted several years, and included discussion of treatment plans with each patient's family.
Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital
The allegations of abuse led to the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States, a federal class action,Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital, 446 F.Supp. 1295 (E.D. Pa., 1977), which asserted that the developmentally disabled in the care of the state have a constitutional right to appropriate care and education. Terry Lee Halderman had been a resident of Pennhurst, and upon release she filed suit in the federal district court on behalf of herself and other residents of Pennhurst. The complaint alleged that conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous, violating the fourteenth amendment, and that Pennhurst used cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments, as well as the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Retardation Act of 1966 (MH/MR). The District Court ruled that certain of the patients' rights had been violated. Ultimately, however, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the judgment based on the Eleventh Amendment principle that federal courts cannot order state officials to comply with state laws.  As noted below, the institution was eventually closed pursuant to a settlement agreement that required that community-based services be offered to all of its residents.
After many years of determining what to do with Pennhurst, Congressman Jim Gerlach sought to establish a federal veterans cemetery at Pennhurst in 2003 but the VA rejected the proposal.
In 2005, the state adopted the Keystone Principles concerning the state's duties to maintain historic property and to consult with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission before transferring the property into private hands. Local County officialssupervisors approved a private development and Pennhurst was sold to a developer, Pennhurst Associates, for two million dollars. The Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance (PMPA) was formed to advocate for certain uses of the site.
Pennhurst was added to the National Register of Historic Places and Pennsylvania's list of the most At-Risk Pennsylvania Properties as well as the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a worldwide network of historic sites specifically dedicated to remembering struggles for justice.
In partnership with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, PMPA obtained a grant to complete a re-use design and feasibility study of the Pennhurst campus. As of 2010, Penn Organic Recycling LLC currently operates on four-and-a-half-acres of Pennhurst, offering tpping, composting and food waste services. The Department of Environmental Protection permitted the composting operation at Pennhurst to maintain no more than 25 tons.
Pennhurst was featured on the shows Ghost Adventures on Travel Channel, Ghost Hunters on SyFy andCelebrity Ghost Stories on BIO.