The horrors at the former Pennsylvania Pennhurst Center led to landmark litigation profoundly changed the treatment of the mentally handicapped. Now, plans to turn the site into a house-of-horror attraction are raising howls of protest.
A suit filed Monday asked a Chester County judge to block Friday's scheduled opening of the "Pennhurst Asylum," which promoters have said would include "a real morgue," along with "shock therapy" and "lobotomy" rooms.
"We're basically left with a last resort," said attorney Stephen V. Siana, who asked for the injunction on behalf of Saul S. Rivkin, chairman of the East Vincent Township Historical Commission, and his wife, Linda Fulton-Rivkin, who live near the complex just outside Spring City.
The petition did not address the emotionally charged aspects of the controversy over the plans for Pennhurst, instead arguing that the haunted house would violate the parcel's low-density residential designation.
It held that the township had failed to require necessary building and construction permits, and thus the public had been denied the right to challenge them. The Rivkins asked Judge Robert J. Shenkin to order a halt on all construction until the developers obtain the permits in question.
Township officials declined to comment Tuesday, but in a memo included in the court filing, Paul Schmidt, the township code-enforcement officer, described the building alterations as "nonstructural."
He also said it would be "hypocritical" to require "specific zoning approval" for the haunted house and not for other seasonal attractions such as hay rides, a corn maze or a church carnival.
Beyond the zoning issue, mental-health advocates and some local residents have strongly protested the proposal.
"This is very objectionable," said Steve Suroviec, executive director of the advocacy group Arc of Pennsylvania, in Harrisburg. In a statement last week, Arc called the plan "an abomination" that "desecrates" the memories of former Pennhurst residents.
Richard Chakejian, who owns the 110-acre Pennhurst property, said that the criticism is misplaced and that the mission of the haunted house is simply "to celebrate Halloween."
He said the brouhaha stirred by advocates and reported by news media is "what really brings up the horrors of the past."
He said he anticipated that most of the patrons would be 12- to 20-year-olds with little or no acquaintance with the history of Pennhurst, which opened in 1908.
It was the Pennhurst case that led to cosmic changes in the care of the mentally retarded.
In a landmark 1977 ruling in the class-action suit filed by attorney David Ferleger, the late U.S. District Judge Raymond Broderick in Philadelphia ruled that some residents had been abused and neglected by staff, in some cases sexually assaulted and beaten.
At the core of the decision was that the mentally retarded would be better served by living fuller and freer lives in small group homes, rather than shut away in institutions.
"Once removed from depressing, restrictive routines," Broderick wrote, "the retarded have been able to accomplish a great deal."
At the time, the decision was highly controversial, but it would form a foundation for the closing of institutions for retarded people all over the country. Pennhurst, which had 1,200 residents at the time the suit was filed, was closed in 1987.
Chakejian, the current Pennhurst owner, said he has had family members institutionalized and is not insensitive to Pennhurst's past.
He said three rooms in the administration building, the haunted house site, would be developed to a "Pennhurst museum" describing the institution's history.
Chakejian said that when he bought the property in 2008 for $2 million, he was the only bidder, adding that the state was anxious to get it on the tax rolls.
He said he is using two of the other 23 buildings at the site for a recycling business, and had invested "six figures" in securing the property from "vandals, thieves and urban explorers."
He said that at the suggestion of his 13-year-old daughter, he came up with the haunted attraction concept, which he is developing with Randy Bates, owner of the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride attraction in Glen Mills.
Chakejian said that fears that the "Pennhurst Asylum" would imprint negative images of the mentally retarded on the minds of the young were unfounded.
Said Chakejian, "I believe our kids are smart enough to understand the difference between reality and make believe."