Group wants Oregon State Hospital on historic register


Local history buffs wants the Oregon State Hospital campus in Salem placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It wouldn't stop the tearing down of hospital structures to make way for a planned new psychiatric facility. But preservationists hope to persuade officials to save some of the older buildings.

"It's a step to say, 'Stop and think twice before you randomly go in there and tear down buildings." said Hazel Patton, a leader of the preservationists.

In a National Register nomination submitted to the State Office of Historic Preservation, they seek creation of a historic district encompassing nearly 50 state hospital buildings built between 1883 and the 1950s.

Atop their list is the hospital's biggest and oldest building, the 124-year-old J Building &

used in filming of the 1975 movie classic "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

It is said to be the oldest psychiatric hospital still in use on the West Coast.

A state advisory committee will consider the request in October and forward a proposal to Washington, D.C.

If they approve it isn't clear how it may affect state plans to build a new $250 million psychiatric facility on about 100 acres of the 144-acre hospital campus. Construction could start in 2009.

Patton aid the goal is not to obstruct the new facility.

"We absolutely believe that there should be a new facility for mental health treatment," she said. "That's not what we're fighting. We're fighting for the old buildings."

"Across the country, there are many old state hospitals, like ours, that have been saved and reused," she said.

Decisions on what to save and what to tear down will wait until an architectural/engineering team is hired. Contractors are expected to deliver a "footprint" of the new facility by spring.

In 2005, state consultants deemed the J Building obsolete, unsafe and apt to collapse in an earthquake.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, recently told the Statesman Journal newspaper that he favors razing much of J Building but saving a small part of it for a museum and resting place for the cremated remains of more than 3,000 patients who died there between the late 1880s and mid-1970s.

Patton says long-vacant portions of the building appear in bad shape.

"When you look beyond the peeling paint and the pigeon poop, you see that it's still structurally sound," she said.

Patton says private developers might want space in the 500,000-square-foot building, particularly if they could tap into federal tax credits provided by a listing on the National Register.

In Wilsonville, 2,400 residences were built on the old Dammasch State Hospital grounds.

In Massachusetts, the former Danvers State Hospital was sold for $19 million to a developer now building a new neighborhood including 433 luxury apartments and 64 condominiums.

Preservationists fought it in court and lost but the developer agreed to save about a third of the main hospital building.

Salem preservationists want more.

"The entire campus tells the story of mental health in Oregon," Patton said. "You can't just pick out one building. It's the whole story and how it progressed over the years."

The facility opened in 1883 as the Oregon State Insane Asylum in what was then Salem's outskirts.

The building is an example of a model developed by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride of Pennsylvania, who pioneered some of the nation's first architectural standards for mental hospitals.

"These massive structures were conceived as ideal sanctuaries for the mentally ill in the latter half of the 19th century," asserts the nomination form.

"Placed in secluded areas within expansive grounds, many seemed almost palace-like from the outside. But growing populations and insufficient funding led to unfortunate conditions that spoiled their idealistic promise."

Oregon's first mental hospital quickly became crowded. Over time building expansion created an inverted J shape, hence the name.

More buildings popped up as the patient population passed 3,300 people by the 1950s.

No new buildings have been erected since the mid-20th century. The hospital now houses fewer than 650 patients.

The National Register is administered by the National Park Service and has more than 80,000 sites including more than 100 in Marion County.

"Once it's put on the National Register, I'm hoping that (officials) will realize that this opens up a lot of doors for funding for the old buildings and also for assistance in how one retrofits or adapts the buildings to modern use," Patton said.

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