Hundreds Tour "Cuckoo's Nest" Hospital

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Most of the 1883 J Building will be demolished for a new state mental ward.

Credit: Oregon Department of Human Services

A 19th-century hospital is getting its 15 minutes of fame, thanks to Jack Nicholson. Slated for partial demolition next year, the J Building at Oregon State Hospital attracted hundreds of people last month for tours of the facility where "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was filmed.

Built in Salem, Ore., in 1883, the reverse-j-shaped Italianate structure extends for a quarter of a mile. The state of Oregon, which owns the J Building, has agreed to save the oldest part of the structure, designed by asylum architect Thomas Kirkbride.

"I went in hoping to save it all and realized that sometimes one has to take a deep breath and accept a compromise," says Salem resident Hazel Patton, who led the effort to list the hospital campus on the National Register of Historic Places.

The state will begin demolishing 17 structures, including about half of the four-story J Building, in February. It broke ground on a new 620-bed facility on Sept. 4.

"The original design was a place of tranquility, a place of healing," says Linda Hammond, administrator for the Oregon State Hospital project. "We're honoring that by keeping and restoring a significant portion of the grounds, including putting in greenspace [and fountains] so the vista will be more reminiscent of what was designed."

The state had initially proposed demolishing all of the J Building: In 2005 a structural engineering survey deemed many of the 75 buildings on the 144-acre complex to be unsafe. San-Francisco-based KMD Architects said the J Building, which then housed 155 patients, could collapse in an earthquake. The state compromised after another study suggested reuse of the Salem campus.

The new building, whose design will be finalized next July, is scheduled to open in 2011. It will be an active psychiatric hospital with a small museum.

"We are going to be able to honor the site and the past and the people who have been here while remaining committed to the needs of the people in the future," Hammond says. "It seemed like a good approach where everybody wins."

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