A weekend stay last month at the Blackburn Inn in Staunton, Va., gave my wife Juli and me an appreciation for a freedom we usually take for granted — the ability to come and go as we please.
After checking in, we were free to leave the premises to stroll around Staunton’s bustling downtown and enjoy an hour of virtuoso performances at a Bach festival. Later, after dinner in the hotel’s bistro, we returned downtown to enjoy some local brews.
This freedom to leave the grounds was something that thousands of people who had once inhabited the historic hotel and neighboring buildings did not enjoy.
The inn opened last year in what was the headquarters building of Western State Hospital — originally known as Western Lunatic Asylum — for almost 150 years. After the circa-1828 mental-health hospital relocated in 1976, the building served as a medium-security prison.
The boutique hotel is named after architect Thomas Blackburn, a Thomas Jefferson protege who was the hospital’s chief architect. At the time of its construction, the Staunton facility joined Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg as Virginia’s primary asylums for patients with mental illnesses and disabilities.
A third such hospital, now known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, W.Va., was in the works before West Virginia split from Virginia during the Civil War. That facility is now open for tours and special events.
The asylums were constructed through the efforts of 19th-century reformers such as Francis Stribling, Thomas Kirkbride and Dorothea Dix, advocates of public hospitals that would provide dignity for patients with mental illnesses. Stribling served as the hospital’s superintendent from 1836 to 1873. The asylums were designed to promote healing and recovery through the restorative effects of inspiring architecture, natural sunlight, wholesome food and attractively landscaped grounds.
Over the years, those lofty ideals were corrupted, according to a history of the hospital prepared for the Garden Club of Virginia. By the early 20th century, Western State Hospital had become badly overcrowded, and it eventually witnessed such abhorrent practices as lobotomies, sterilizations and research in support of the eugenics movement.
After the hospital was relocated, the facility served as a prison from 1981 until 2002, when it was abandoned. Development firm Miller and Associates purchased the property in 2006 and began the process of converting the buildings into condominiums and apartments. The $11 million renovation of the hotel building began in 2016, and it opened in June.
Before our early check-in, we stopped at Wright’s Dairy-Rite, a diner across the road from the hotel. The restaurant, which opened in 1952, is a step back in time. Customers may stay in their cars, phone in their orders and have their hamburgers and hot dogs brought to them.
We chose to dine inside, amid memorabilia from the 1950s and ’60s, including a Wurlitzer jukebox. To the tunes of the Beach Boys, Four Seasons and Sam Cooke, customers phoned in orders from their tables. The mushroom and Swiss burger and onion rings we ordered were just right, and Juli declared that the milkshakes were “like pure ice cream.”
After lunch, signs on the hotel grounds directed us to a tall stairway at the center of the stately brick building for registration. An array of pastries and a bottle of sparkling wine were set out in the lobby, where we chatted with Blake Fisk, the helpful concierge, about the history of the hotel building and events taking place in Staunton that day.
The hotel has 49 guest rooms with 27 floor plans. The smallest guest rooms, “cozy queens,” comprise what had been two 10-by-10 rooms when the building was a hospital, according to the hotel’s general manager, Lacy Peterson.
Converting them to hotel rooms was a big project that involved drilling through brick and concrete walls that were 6 to 12 inches thick, Peterson said, adding that some of the larger guest rooms and suites were made from three of the original rooms.
Peterson said that the hotel building had housed administrative offices and patient treatment rooms during its days as an asylum; the patients had lived in other buildings. When the building served as a prison, inmates had been incarcerated on what is now the hotel’s third floor.
The hotel was attractively furnished, with high ceilings and magnificent, winding staircases, some of which had stairs that sloped from decades of wear. A spiral staircase wound from the fourth floor up to an open-air cupola, where guests could enjoy a 360-degree view of Staunton. An airy art gallery opposite the main staircase featured the works of local artists.
Our “cozy queen” room was aptly named — cozy but not cramped. It was immediately obvious why the hotel offered queen-size beds rather than kings; the larger beds would not have fit the space. But the room offered all the creature comforts we wanted, including bedside reading lamps, a Keurig coffee maker and a refrigerator supplied with bottled water.
The bathroom was roomy and well-appointed, with toiletries and a “rainfall shower.” However, a gap between the high ceiling and the top of the wall separating the bathroom and bedroom provided a little less privacy than we would have liked.
About 150 miles southwest of the District, Staunton is a small, vibrant city with an active arts scene in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The home of Mary Baldwin University, Staunton is the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president. It is also home to the American Shakespeare Center and Blackfriars Playhouse.
After strolling around downtown, we drove to a church that was hosting “Bach Around the Clock,” a 12-hour festival co-sponsored by the Heifetz International Music Institute at Mary Baldwin. The program featured vocal groups and instrumentalists performing the composer’s works on instruments including pipe organs and banjos.
We heard a virtuoso performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations II by pianist Bruce Murray, followed by innovative interpretations of pieces written for cello, played on acoustic guitar and a specially made cello banjo.
Although more than two hours of the festival remained, we were getting hungry. So we returned to the hotel for dinner at the Second Draft, a cozy bistro nestled in what had been the building’s sun porch.
Juli liked her open-faced portobello mushroom with caramelized onions, cherry tomatoes and blue cheese crumbles, and my tuna sandwich with fresh arugula and melted Swiss cheese was a nice counterbalance to the heavier diner food I had enjoyed for lunch.
The bistro was winding down, so we headed back downtown to sample some craft beers at Shenandoah Pizza and Tap House. Juli ordered an ale from Devils Backbone, a brewery based in nearby Lexington. I preferred the stronger flavor of El Guapo Agave IPA from O’Connor Brewing Co. of Norfolk. The brews made for a mellow ending to a full day.
The thick walls of our hotel room helped ensure a quiet, restful night. In the morning, we returned to the sunny bistro for a delectable continental breakfast of fruit, muffins and some of the biggest croissants we had ever seen. They were delicious, too, supplied by Réunion Bakery and Espresso of Staunton.
At breakfast we overheard some of the other guests remarking that they hadn’t encountered any ghosts during their stay. Neither had we. We felt that the hotel management had done a good job of preserving the historic property without exploiting the legacy of those who had lived and worked there.
And, unlike some of the unfortunate souls who had traversed the hotel’s hallways through the ages, we were grateful that, when our visit drew to a close, we were free to return home.
Barnes is a writer based in Leesburg. Follow him at notesnletters.com or on Twitter: @notesnletters.
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301 Greenville Ave., Staunton
The 49-room boutique hotel opened last year in an 1828 building that used to be part of Western State Hospital. The smallest rooms, with one queen-size bed, start at about $170 and include a continental breakfast. Queen suites start at about $250.
Second Draft Bistro
301 Greenville Ave., Staunton
The small bistro in the Blackburn Inn is open for dinner nightly and for lunch on weekends. A complimentary continental breakfast for hotel guests is served. The seasonal dinner menu includes small-plate appetizers, soups, salads, flatbread pizza, sandwiches, chicken pot pie and desserts. Entrees are $9 to $11.
346 Greenville Ave., Staunton
Across from the Blackburn Inn, this restaurant has been serving since 1952. The walls are adorned with 1950s-era memorabilia, faded newspaper clippings and autographed photos of Virginia dignitaries who have dined there. Hamburgers and hot dogs start at less than $3; other dishes range from $3 to $10.
Shenandoah Pizza and Tap House
19 E. Beverley St., Staunton
This friendly, casual pizza restaurant in downtown Staunton serves 20 varieties of pizza, as well as salads, subs, calzones and wraps. It also offers a good selection of regional craft beers. Pizzas $8 to $21; sandwiches $9.
115 E. Beverley St., Staunton
In a historic building in downtown Staunton near Blackfriars Playhouse, Zynodoa serves regionally sourced Southern cuisine, including steaks, seafood and pasta. Entrees range from $21 for potato rosemary gnocchi to $34 for grilled New York strip steak.
For the author’s full list of recommendations, visit washingtonpost.com/trave l