Sunday, May 17, 2015

Pennhurst | "Suffer the Little Children"

About three weeks ago I, on the spur of the moment due to a last minute cancellation, joined a group of photographers lead by Denise Ippolito at Pennhurst State School and Hospital for four hours of shooting. I had seen Denise's photography from there in the past and was intrigued by the prospect of old buildings, some graffiti and the element of the unknown. A few years ago I learned that my daughter in law, Kristine, grew up near there and that Kyle and Kristine live in the area now. I had the makings of a fun weekend trip; take some pictures and catch up with the kids. So with little sleep I hit the road in the wee hours on a Saturday morning wondering what I would find.

Pennhurst, I discovered, does have many old buildings. I'll share a few photos of those. There was graffiti. But I am not showing those images in this post as I don't feel that has much to do with the story. What was unknown to me was that this was an institution for mentally and physically disabled children, the most vulnerable members of society. Pennhurst opened in 1908 as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. I have no reason to think that the state legislature had none but the best intentions when it funded this facility. In 1968 conditions that often did not live up to those intentions were aired in a five part TV news report by the title of this post. The last patient was transferred out and the facility closed in 1987. In the decades since, the buildings have decayed, inside and out, in a morbid reflection of the thousands who called (if they had the mental ability to do so) this place home. This is the element of unknown prior to visiting that I found: The profoundly sombre and thought provoking topic of society's treatment of those less fortunate members. My style of processing these images is an attempt to reflect that mood.

It is not my intent to here to advocate, one way or another, a solution to the mental health challenge society grapples with. I leave that up to the reader. It is clear to me that in view of recent mass atrocities committed against society by individuals who are clearly disturbed that the problems remain despite medical advances.

The group had access to the inside of two buildings. The owner said that presently only 3 buildings had repaired roofs and plans to do a couple of more were in the works. It is a huge complex of buildings originally spanning several hundred acres. Afterwards, we were given a tour of the grounds. The state sold the facility to a developer who's intentions were to raze it and build a high density community in line with the zoning. The local government didn't want the development and blocked it. So here it sits in further limbo.


  1. Donnie, these images really do reflect the mood felt by many that enter Pennhurst. Youe first image took my breath away! Terrific!