In 1828, the Staunton Sanitarium opened with in Staunton, VA. At the time, it was a state-of-the-art facility designed to treat the mentally-ill in a humane fashion — in fact, the original architecture was done by Thomas Blackburn, a protege of Thomas Jefferson himself. Built before the coming immense Kirkbride buildings dominated American institutions, the facility still maintained a large, sprawling feel for openness and comfort.
Unfortunately, like many of the asylums built during this time, the facility soon became overrun and underfunded. This was particularly true with Staunton, however, as it eventually focused on the treatment of African-Americans, notably many slaves. Patients often suffered from abuse, and while many facilities across the country were able to remain open well into the 60s and 70s (some still open even today), Staunton continued to fall to the wayside — particularly as newer facilities were built at the turn of the century.
By 1918, with much of the patient population being transferred to other facilities, Staunton Sanitarium closed down. It sat vacant for thirteen years — gathering mostly just mildew and cobwebs.
On the other side of the world in Austria, Albert J. Durnstein was born in 1897. The son of a wealthy wine merchant, Durnstein grew up in relative comfort. When World War I broke out, he was conscripted by the Austrian forces in 1915 when he turned 18 and served for most the remainder of the war. Having hefty connections, he was eventually promoted to Colonel, and mostly did not see much actual combat. However, one thing that stuck with him was the recently developed aerial innovations known as airplanes. In fact, a low-flying biplane nearly killed him when the pilot dropped a few grenades near where he was. Durnstein proved to be fascinated by the aerospace technology every since.
Shortly after the war, Durnstein immigrated to the United States — moving first to Mississippi before settling in Virginia.
The Founding – 1930
In 1926, at the age of 29, Albert J. Durnstein purchased the remnants of the Staunton Sanitarium from the government at a substantially discounted rate. Needing a major remodel, the government was looking to unload the property, and Durnstein had just the idea for it. Overhauling the entire building, he converted the aging hospital into an engineering laboratory — returning it to state-of-the-art glory. Along with revamping the already standing edifice, he also built several air hangers along the surrounding areas to act as engineering, manufacturing, and testing facilities for full-scale aircraft.
It was a four-year process but in 1930, the Durnstein Center of Science was established.
Rolling out several high-end aircraft, the US government became interested in the facility. The company expanded into naval, vehicular, and weapons technology — becoming an early defense contractor alongside the recently formed Lockheed Aircraft Company (formed out of the Loughead Aircraft Manufacturing and Alco Hydro-Aeroplane Company before that) and Boeing (Pacific Aero Products at the time).
Beginning in the mid-1930s, with tensions in Europe increasing with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy, the US began ramping up its spending in defense technology. Although the United States was not yet officially in the war, entry into battle seemed imminent and the country was still supplying European Allies unofficially. The next two decades saw one of the most major expansions, with the number of employees rising dramatically to keep up with the demand.
With the United States officially entering World War II in 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, demand for more weapons and vehicles — with greater and greater innovation — skyrocketed. The Center developed several of its namesake weapons — mainly rockets — during this time period. It also engineered and manufactured a few aircraft like the B-87, but as Lockheed and Boeing could manufacture the crafts cheaper, the Center focused primarily on the engines and turbines used in the other company’s aircraft. Several prestigious plane models carried Durnstein engines as they flew into battle.
Although no attack occurred, during the time — much like with many airfields — Durnstein was seen as a possible target for attack. So, it set up various camouflage efforts — putting up nets and tarps of disguised colors to blend into the surrounding forest area.
World War II officially ended in 1945, and the year prior, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 1944 GI Bill — designed to provide education and training for returning troops to be better equipped for re-entry into the workforce. In response to the GI Bill, and a recognition that their facility was not reaching its full potential, Durnstein began offering training programs for returning soldiers.
The 1950s saw the first major shift in the Center. Recognizing the potential to breach the healthcare industry with several facilities designed for the medical field, Durnstein began a push in the medical industry — officially changing its name to the Durnstein Center for Science and Medicine in 1955. DCSM entered a joint-partnership with the Orthopedic Frame Company (later the Stryker Corporation) in 1957 to research and develop high-end medical devices.
In pushing the new drive for medical pursuits, the old facility became mostly focused in healthcare while a new facility built in Alexandria, VA focused on the science and technology side of things.
On October 17th, 1959, at the age of 62, Albert J. Durnstein died suddenly of a heart attack. John “Jack” Durnstein, his son, had taken over most of the operations in 1957, but officially became CEO and Chairman of DCSM following Albert’s death.
With the Cold War in full swing by this point, more and more high-end, and very secretive, technology was developed at DCSM including a special stealth bomber prototype known as the Y-457 that, while it never actually went beyond the prototype stage, was seen as the most advanced aircraft of the decade.
Durnstein continued its expanse within the medical industry, with many notable medical alumni attending during this decade. With recent advances in devices such as pacemaker technology, Durnstein became a forefront authority on research and development, as well as a sort of starting point for many prominent minds. Franz Schindler, for example, was once a junior executive at DCSM before traveling back to his home country of Germany to help in re-inventing Fresenius with Else Kroner (daughter of Eduard Fresenius). The Fresenius company brings in approximately $34 billion in 2015.
In 1976, the Durnstein Center for Science and Medicine gained its 300th patent for adoption heating-cooling system.
With powerhouses like IBM, and later Apple and Microsoft, emerging more and more profoundly, DCSM took a digital leap and started engaging in information technology services in the 1980s. By 1986, DCSM had one of the most advanced computer laboratories of the time. DCSM worked extensively with the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and then Leidos when SAIC spun-off into that brand. Even today, they share a building in Alexandria.
In 1982, Phillip Gordneimer, the son-in-law of Jack Durnstein, became CEO of the Center following declining health of Jack. Jack Durnstein later died in 1983 after a battle with lung cancer.
In 1993, President Gordneimer began the tradition of the Durnstein Summer Festival that invited staff, their families, and the surrounding area to a large celebration that included food, music, and fireworks. This tradition has continued now for over three decades.
One year later in 1994, DCSM opened two new facilities: one in Florida and the other in Montana. With larger areas to operate, major manufacturing facilities and hangars were built, and DCSM saw its largest growth ever — going from only around 400 employees in two locations to over 1000 employees at four locations — all within a couple of years.
In 1996, Jim Radcliffe became President and CEO — the first chief executive not directly related to the original founder Albert J. Durnstein. Under President Radcliffe, DCSM expanded into further research aptitudes including biotechnology and robotics.
In 2001, with the arrival of Benjamin Sanders as the new president of the Center, the new Halloway Hanger was opened in the Montana complex — a facility large enough to easily accommodate 3 large bombers at once. Halloway Hanger was opened in coordination with Northrop Grumman to develop specialized aircraft that were faster and more precision-oriented than ever before.
In 2007, Sally Gordneimer (daughter of former president Phillip Gordneimer) took over as CEO and president until 2011; she became the first female president of the Center, and was followed by Samantha Wyling — the current President and CEO of the Durnstein Center for Science and Medicine.