Goodbye to the Cuckoo’s Nest

Massive old buildings have always fascinated me. I mean, really, who doesn’t want to wander around one for hours, imagining every fantastic and ordinary and wondrous and sordid thing that took place within its walls?

Or is it only writers who do that?

In September of 2008, the Oregon State Hospital in Salem (where they filmed the classic movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) orchestrated a series of tours of the facility, since large chunks of it were about to be torn down. The tours, though unpublicized, quickly became the hottest ticket in town. (Besides the Hollywood connection, the Hospital gained notoriety in 2005 when The New York Times published a story detailing how the unclaimed “cremains” of 3,489 former patients had been found in a storage room, in mouldering cans whose labels had rotted off.)

So what did I do when this fabulous opportunity to see a historic building presented itself?

I had a baby that month, and missed the entire thing.

Half a year later, when I belatedly learned about the tours, I fretted and whined and tried to persuade my brother, who works in the state system, to get me into the building so I could look around.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

So I pouted for a while and then did the next best thing. If Mohammed can’t go to the mountain, then Mohammed will power up her iBook and research the crap out of the mountain.


Our State Hospital was built in 1883 and was, at first, bluntly named the “Oregon State Insane Asylum.” It was an impressive, sprawling building situated on a large, park-like campus, and when you drove by it in recent years, its sheer size made it seem as forbidding as it looked in Cuckoo’s Nest (as in: “There were that many crazy people locked up there?”) It was one of the last hospitals built in the mold of the noted “Kirkbride Plan.”

In the early 1800’s, mental illness was poorly understood, and most people who suffered from it were consigned to jails, backrooms or basements. Some of them were chained and beaten. (Antipsychotic drugs wouldn’t be discovered until more than a century later.) In 1844, a spitfire activist named Dorothea Dix started lobbying in Massachusetts for more humane treatment of the mentally ill.

As a direct result, a psychiatrist named Thomas Kirkbride came up with a design for mental asylums that incorporated huge, hospital-like buildings sited on extensive grounds that looked like gardens. The new idea was to attempt to treat mentally ill people, in a nurturing environment that included fresh air and sunshine.

The first of these structures was built in New Jersey in 1847. (It is now known as the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital and has been the scene of much reported paranormal activity – which, if you’ve seen these buildings, is no surprise.) Over the next 50 years, dozens more would go up, all over the United States.

Of course, you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

When these hospitals were being built, psychiatry was still a primitive science. And so, inevitably, these state-of-the-art facilities became the breeding ground for some bad practices. Trickery. Shock treatments. And yes, those horrifying lobotomies. The absolutely gorgeous Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts was rumored to be the actual birthplace of the frontal lobotomy.

All of the “Kirkbride” buildings were beautiful (in a slightly sinister way), but they are being systematically demolished as they fall into disrepair. It’s hard to find modern-day uses for such enormous, institutional structures, and their repair and upkeep is difficult to fund.

Our own State Hospital is in the process of being almost completely torn down – besides the financial issues, its sketchy pedigree is probably too difficult to overcome. Not just the memory of the “criminally insane” who have roamed its halls, but also the controversies. There were the infamous cremains. There were asbestos violations. There were recent charges involving substandard care of a patient who died.

The Oregon State Insane Asylum has worn out its welcome.

Its sad, to me. For one thing, it seems such a waste, of material and labor – but also, I hate to lose all that history, all the stories contained within those walls, including the fictional ones I have yet to write. I love big old buildings, and I hate to see them go.

Even the ones that creep me out.

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10 thoughts on “Goodbye to the Cuckoo’s Nest

  1. Again I think it’s a Huhn thing 🙂 I agree with you about it being creepy and fascinating at the same time. Having been there many times I can tell you you do feel the weight of all that history when your in the building or walking the grounds with all their outbuilding of some unknown or unused function. The coolest thing was getting to see the miles of tunnels that connect the whole campus, staff ride bikes with bells in the narrow passages zipping from building to building with all the underground conduits.
    I will miss the place.

  2. I understand you. Every time we drive by old abandoned houses, I have a longing to see what’s inside. We lived in an original farmhouse from the 1930’s for awhile. A neighbor two doors down grew up there and knew all the folks who had lived in our house. I loved listening to his stories. Thanks for sharing such an excellent, intriquing piece of writing.

    Lazy Silly Girl

  3. Did I ever tell you about the time I worked at a bank call-center and the wonky call I got from a lady who I am quite sure was in a mental institution? She wanted to check on her deposit, but wouldn’t give her name or account number because it was a secret. She told me she had sent “cash, cold hard cash, lots of it,greenbacks” to all the bank branches. Needless to say, without asking for her hone number, I said we’d check on it and call her back. What else could I do?
    I know I have nothing of historical significance to relay, but this post just reminded me of that..

  4. I do think you would enjoy The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. There is a little of this topic in there too. Creepy. Larry loves places like these as evidenced by his commitment to Paranormal States and the Ghost Hunters franchise.

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