Do you know what occupied the area of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg and the Custis Square archaeological dig before the start of restoration work in Williamsburg’s Historic Area in the late 1920s? The answer is Eastern State Hospital – a huge complex of buildings and surrounding farmland – offering residential mental health services for patients living in the Eastern half of Virginia. It evolved from a 24-room Public Hospital opened in Williamsburg in 1773 to care exclusively for mentally ill residents. Over the next century, the asylum grew to include five more buildings, many of which burned down during a destructive fire in 1885. The campus constructed after this tragic event is known to Williamsburg residents on the eve of the Restoration.
Some of the main buildings anchoring the campus, as documented in photos and postcards, overlooked Francis Street. When looking through the main gate at the hospital’s entrance on Francis Street, the infirmary (1895) stood straight ahead with a small garden centered around an ornamental fountain in front of it. Slightly in front of the infirmary and to the left stood Thompson Hall (1881), a female dormitory, while to the right stood the Thurman Building (1880/5), providing housing for male patients. Near Thompson Hall and closest to the facility’s boundary fence stood Cameron Hall (1883), a recreational building.
Further back on the campus, several more residence halls included the Brower Building (1912), Montague Hall (1902), the Covington Building (1930), and the Taylor Building (1892). Smaller support structures included a laundry, bakery, ice plant, paint shop, power plant, and specialized wards for patients recovering from tuberculosis. In 1927, the hospital constructed the Brown Building, a large structure with a two-story columned porch and cupola, to face Henry Street and serve as a patient diagnostic center. It stood on the approximate site of today’s National Center for State Courts. South of the complex, a farm allowed the hospital to raise livestock and produce to supply its dining halls.
The hospital campus played a secondary role as an important employer for the Williamsburg community. Some buildings and grounds doubled as recreational sites for patients and residents. For example, Cameron Hall (1883), located at the edge of the campus on Francis Street, housed an auditorium often used for dances, musical performances, movies, and plays by the broader community. It even served as a spot for the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes & Drums to rehearse. In Growing Up in Williamsburg, Ed Belvin recalls, “I became somewhat familiar with the hospital at an early age and sometimes strolled through the grounds with my brothers or sister. We talked to the patients and sometimes ran errands for them, usually to the stores uptown for gum or candy.”
When the downtown site reached capacity, and hospital administrators realized further expansion would not be possible due to Colonial Williamsburg’s growth, they began building some facilities at the Dunbar Farm site, an area along Ironbound Road acquired in 1919 to extend the hospital’s farming acreage. By 1970, the hospital had completed the move of most patients and services to the Dunbar Farm site. Eastern State Hospital’s large and imposing buildings gradually faced demolition during the late 1960s-early 1970s. The hospital sold its downtown property to Colonial Williamsburg and focused on developing a new campus on Ironbound Road.
Colonial Williamsburg undertook initial archaeological exploration for the site of the eighteenth-century public hospital in 1972 and conducted further excavations in 1980. Reconstruction of the Public Hospital and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum behind it began in 1982, and the two opened to the public in 1985. Today’s aerial views offer a strikingly different complex of buildings adapting the site of the 18th-century Public Hospital and its successor, Eastern State Hospital, for new uses that still commemorate its historic significance as one of the earliest psychiatric facilities in America.
Marianne Martin is a Visual Resources Librarian at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library at Colonial Williamsburg. She works behind the scenes to care for the historical images housed in the library and assists both Colonial Williamsburg staff and outside researchers with locating visual materials to support their projects. The opportunity to learn more about the people, places, and events featured in the large collection of historical photos leads to fascinating detective work and new discoveries each day. When she first visited Colonial Williamsburg on an eighth grade class trip, little did she know that she would one day have the privilege to work at the museum!