Polk State Center Reveals a Rich, Varied, Yet Troublesome History

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – While the long term future of the Polk State Center is very uncertain, the history of the facility is rich, varied, and sometimes troublesome.

The 120-year-old Venango County institution has had its share of fires, construction of several buildings, and the rise and fall of its population. The population went from 153 to nearly 3,400 and then back down to its current numbers of between 250 and 300.

Twenty years ago, the center was embroiled in a major controversy as several doctors who worked at the facility were charged in relation to a number of patient deaths.

Fortunately, the Venango County Historical Society, led by its Executive Director Marlie Manning, has a plethora of information and photographs on the historic campus.

All photos and much of the information about the history of the center from the beginning to the late 1980’s is courtesy of the Venango County Historical Society,

According to the VCHS, it was 125 years ago when the subject of building a state institution for mentally challenged people was initiated.

EPSON MFP imageOne year later, on June 3, 1893, the state approved an act to build a facility to be called the Western PA State Institution for the Feeble-Minded.

The October 5, 1893 edition of the Venango Citizen Press published a story that Polk had been chosen for the facility.

Sites all over western Pa. were considered, but the Polk area was chosen because of its three high-quality springs and close proximity to a rail line. The site also had between 500 and 1,000 acres.

After a second round of bids was opened for construction in September of 1894, a Pittsburgh company was awarded the job for $432,000.00.

According to an article in the 2013-14 winter edition of Western Pennsylvania History magazine by Lu Donnelly, the school was one of architect Frederick John Osterling’s largest commissions.

Donnelly wrote, “Osterling (1865-1934) founded his architectural practice in 1888 at the age of 23 and procured this large commission before his 30th birthday.”

“Osterling designs often have large rounded turrets and towers, steeply angled roofs, and handsome brickwork, as do the Polk buildings. The administration building at Polk Center looks like a county courthouse with a pedimented portico offset by large rounded-corner towers topped by conical roofs and a central six-sided tower with a cupola. In the original design, long, three-story wings of red bricks flank the administration building creating courtyards, and behind the administration building, a whole quadrangle of dormitories and living spaces complete the original vision.”

“Over the years more dormitories, a hospital, and utilitarian buildings continued to be added. The later designs were by architects Samuel D. Brady of nearby Franklin and Louis Stevens, who worked in Pittsburgh and Venango County.”

“The Polk complex was meant to be nearly self-supporting upon its completion and included barns and farm buildings, spring houses, a laundry, and a powerhouse. Patients often worked in these places until treatments for the mentally challenged changed to community-based care, and the patient population dwindled.”

On January 22, 1897, the state institution was transferred from the state Building Commission to the Board of Trustees.

At that time, there were 15 buildings, 16 cottages for the residents, one horse barn, and one cow barn. The buildings included administration, two educational schools, one industrial school, a building for teachers, two dining room buildings, a kitchen and a bakery, cold storage building, powerhouse, laundry and work shop, and two storage buildings for clothes.


On April 21, 1897, the first children – a total of 153 – were received from the PA Training School at Elwyn.

On September 23, 1897, the facility was officially dedicated.


By 1900, 671 children were being cared for at Polk with 71 more than able.

A small diphtheria epidemic was complicated by the crowded conditions and the lack of a separate hospital. Overcrowding would prove to be an issue in the following decades.

In 1901, the population was up to 781. A year later, a hospital was built.

From 1907 to 1909, the overcrowding continued with 1,248 children in a facility meant for 800. A plan for more construction was approved, and the Gardenside custodial building was completed. By 1909, Polk was home to 1,346 children.


In late August of 1912, two barns were destroyed by separate fires, virtually losing all of the season’s crops and no winter feed for the horses and cows.

In 1913 to 1914, more construction added an auditorium, an addition to the hospital, and a pump station.

On October 17, 1915, a natural gas explosion destroyed the laundry building and powerhouse. Construction to replace the buildings didn’t begin until the spring of 1916.

During World War I, a number of buildings were “fireproofed.” War gardens were planted, and a sand filter was installed for the water system, which provided 500,000 gallons every day.

After a plea to the state, construction on a road between Polk and Franklin began in 1922.

The name was changed to the Polk State School in 1923.

In 1927 to 1928, the farm colony for boys began, and a new boys’ dorm was approved. The new dorm (Sunnyside) was opened on September 16, 1929. Four hundred boys lived there. A few years later, construction of another boys dorm (Woodside). It was finished in 1933.


As the country dealt with the harsh effects of the Great Depression, Polk State School did, too.

In 1934, it requested $500,000.00 from the Works Progress Administration for five new units to relieve overcrowding. Improvements were made to the filtration plant and pump station with federal funding.

By 1938, Polk State School was home to 3,000 children with 1,000 more on a waiting list.


One million dollars was requested for new construction. The school ended up receiving $431,000.00 to build a new girls’ infirmary (Meadowside) and make improvements to the power plant and sewage disposal system. Meadowside was opened in February of 1941. The school was home to 3,320 children.

From 1940 to 1942, the school adopted new and expanded agricultural practices.

On January 1, 1942, Dr, Gale H. Walker became the new superintendent. New medical procedures were put in place, including quarantine, isolation, a dental program, and revamping the water system.

On March 12, 1944, tragedy struck when a child died in a dorm fire. The school’s firefighting forced out the blaze.

The population reached its all-time high in the period of 1942 to 1944 with 3,390 children.

The board asked for new appropriations, including a 200-bed hospital, new dairy barn, silo, greenhouse, fire engine, 300 acres farm land, ambulance, truck, ice machine, bakery equipment, and chlorinator.

The Civil Defense was set up in February of 1942 with the first blackout held on June 25, 1942.

The 1946 to 1948 time period included a new laundry being approved, and in the fall of 1947, $1 million was approved for a new, 200-bed hospital.

In 1948, the state Department of Highways built a road between Routes 8 and 62, known as the Polk Cut-Off.

The new hospital was opened on July 9, 1951, with the old one being turned into a nursery.

In 1956, the auditorium and kitchen had structural failures, leaving them unusable.

On October 23, 1959, the $1.1 million kitchen and dietary building were completed.

Various construction projects were done in the 1960s, including a new greenhouse, farm manager’s office, picnic shelters, ash silo, voice reporting system, reservoir, and bull barn.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, more construction was done, including adding to the street lighting system, heating system renovations, re-roofing, dining hall renovations, new boiler plant, and other various projects.

In 1982, the state Department of Agriculture took over the farm operations. Before that, the Polk Center had 102 buildings covering 2,094 acres. By 1982, Polk had 800 acres and 90 buildings, including 11 for residents.

On August 27, 1980, a fire destroyed Barn 2. Two years later, the Polk Center cattle were sold at auction.

Polk State Center Faces Complications, Troubled Times

The patient population was drastically reduced as they were placed in their communities.

In the mid- to late-1990s, virtually the entire medical staff at Polk Center was accused of mistreating residents and contributing to the deaths of four residents.

According to a February 27, 1999 Pittsburgh Post Gazette article, it was the largest case ever brought by Pennsylvania against its own doctors.

The article states that doctors were accused of stapling shut flesh wounds on center residents without using anesthetic. At least two of the doctors verified this was done. At the same time, center employees who worked with the doctors suggested that patients, some of them profoundly retarded, were sometimes hard to keep still, leaving doctors to sometimes opt to quickly close small wounds while they had the chance.

One doctor was charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony neglect of a patient in the March 7, 1997 death of a 62-year-old man. Prosecutors said the man was not properly treated for hypothermia. The same doctor was also charged with felony neglect of a patient for failing to diagnose and treat a woman who died on July 19, 1996. Prosecutors said the doctor failed to act when the woman turned blue and lost blood pressure, instead – ordering an x-ray. The doctor was also accused of twice stapling shut lacerations on patients without anesthesia.

Another doctor was accused of manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and neglect for failing to obtain diagnostic tests for a Polk patient who died on August 15, 1997, of an apparent brain hemorrhage.

Yet another physician was accused of misdemeanor neglect and reckless endangerment in the August 4, 1995 death of a man who lived at Polk Center. The doctor was accused of failing to act in mid-June 1995 when the man developed pneumonia and failed to prescribe a proper antibiotic after finding that the man was allergic to penicillin. He was also charged with failing to use anesthetic when stapling shut lacerations on eight patients from September 1995 to September 1996.

Three other doctors were charged with assault for stapling shut injuries without anesthesia.

For more Venango County news, visit http://explorevenango.com.


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