Infamous J Building demolition starts

From the Salem Statesman Journal, April 6 2008

Demolition of Oregon State Hospital’s J Building begins

A construction crew took the first bites out of J Building, the site of the filming of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” this morning.

The process of pulling down of the deserted three-story south wing of Oregon State Hospital’s J Building will take two weeks.

A state contractor will gradually take it apart with a special trackhoe, equipped with a 195-foot arm and various attachments.

The first step calls for roof removal. After that, each floor of the three-story structure will be razed.

The south wing of the J Building is part of a fortress-like 126-year-old brick complex that gained a niche in cinematic history when it was used in filming of the 1975 Oscar-winning movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Later, its peeling facade and rotting interior became a decrepit reminder of systematic neglect of Oregon’s mental-health system.

In 2005, state-hired consultants deemed the J Building obsolete and unsafe. The report spurred state plans to build a new 620-bed, $280 million replacement hospital on the existing campus in central Salem.

Hospital Superintendent Roy Orr sees razing of much of the creaking structure as symbolic and tangible progress.

“To me, it respectfully asks our past to get out of the way for our future,” he said.

Former hospital superintendent Dean Brooks, 92, said he won’t mourn the passing of the oldest psychiatric facility on the West Coast.

“I’m not sorry to see it go,” he said. “It has lived its time.”

Eventually, more than half of the J Building will be dismantled to clear the way for construction of the new hospital.

However, the oldest and most historically significant portions will be preserved, remodeled and incorporated into the new facility, which is scheduled to open in 2011.

Plans call for using part of the preserved area to house a mental-health museum.

Among those with a keen interest in museum creation is Brooks, who now lives at Willson House, an assisted living facility on Center Street NE, blocks away from the state hospital.

He envisions the future museum as a fitting place to display “Cuckoo’s Nest” movie props and memorabilia.

As hospital leader in the 1970s, Brooks granted movie makers permission to film “Cuckoo’s Nest” inside the facility. He served as a technical adviser for the movie and became a cast member, playing the role of Dr. Spivey, a well-intentioned but weak mental hospital administrator.

Based on the 1962 novel by Oregon author Ken Kesey, “Cuckoo’s Nest” starred Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy, a rebellious mental patient.

In the movie’s climactic scene, McMurphy is left docile by a brain-cutting lobotomy. His fate enrages and empowers another patient, the silent Chief, who lifts a heavy hydrotherapy machine over his head and throws it through a screened window, clearing the way for his escape.

Although it won a slew of Oscars, many mental-health professionals hated “Cuckoo’s Nest,” denouncing it as a false depiction of mental hospital cruelty. Brooks saw it differently. To him, the story was an allegory about abuses of power in society.

“I’m proud of having had a part in it,” he said.

What movie artifacts does Brooks hope to see included in the planned mental-health museum?

“For example, the hydrotherapy unit the chief throws through the window at the end of the movie,” he said. “The television set that Tom McCall, our governor, was broadcasting over. Maybe a script. I have several things that I’m going to contribute.”

As the J Building faces destruction, Brooks said it’s important to remember that it long served as a safe sanctuary for people with mental illness.

“It was a winner in past years,” he said. “It was a very comfortable living space. Patients had their own rooms and ample space.

“If it had been properly maintained through the years, and if it didn’t have asbestos problems, it still could be a beautiful building to house patients.”

J Building facts

Past: Constructed in 1883, the structure reflected architectural standards developed by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride. In the mid-19th century, Kirkbride pioneered the idea of locating healing asylums in parklike environments.

Present: Long-abandoned, decayed sections of the building have been cleared of asbestos and lead paint, opening the way for phased demolition work.
Historic demolition

What: Dismantling of the south wing of Oregon State Hospital’s J Building — first step in the phased demolition of more than half of the 126-year-old structure.

When: Starts Monday; will take about two weeks.

How: A contractor will use a special trackhoe with a 195-foot arm and various attachments. First, the roof will be removed, then one floor at a time will be dismantled.

Size: Total square footage for the south wing is about 34,120 square feet, including three floors and basement.

Recycling: All of the bricks and wood will be salvaged; some materials will be used for the state’s planned replacement hospital.