Opened in 1883, the Oregon State Hospital has served the needs of psychiatric patients from all over Oregon since it opened. It was initially called the Oregon Hospital for the Insane until 1913 when it was renamed the Oregon State Hospital. The street leading to the hospital was even named Asylum Avenue but was also renamed the much less controversial Center Street.

Oregon State Hospital
The original rendering for the Oregon State Hospital, following the design of Thomas Kirkbride.

The Grounds of the Oregon State Hospital

The Oregon State Hospital is part of the Oregon State Hospital Historic District, which stretches over 130 acres in the center of Salem. The grounds include a popular disc golf course open to the public and easily accessible via Center Street. The Historic District has over 60 buildings, from small cottages to giant institutional structures, some designed by famous Oregon architects like Pietro Belluschi and Edgar Lazarus.

The hospital is an essential part of the Historic District because it was built using the Kirkbride Plan. Named for its architect, Thomas Kirkbride, Kirkbride Plan buildings were specifically for mental hospitals and included many wings stretching out from the central entrance. They were based on his ideas about what mentally ill patients need, including sunlight and proper ventilation. These types of hospitals were built around the United States from the middle of the nineteenth century until the first decade of the twentieth century.

Oregon State Hospital
The Dome Building was designed by Edgar M. Lazarus and finished in 1912. It is connected to the rest of the hospital with tunnels under Center Street. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Most people know the Oregon State Hospital as the site of the Jack Nicholson movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the book by Ken Kesey. The book, written in 1962, was a sensation and opened up a conversation about mental health and psychiatric hospitals. Since the book was set at the Oregon State Hospital, those involved in making the film also wanted to film it there. The movie, which came out in 1975, won all five major Oscars — film, director, actor, actress, and screenplay.

While the filming took place at the hospital, many of the patients and staff were involved in the movie in various capacities. In one of the exhibits at the Museum of Mental Health, located in one of the historic buildings, photos and props showed how the facility and people were integral to the movie. Most of the extras in the film were patients currently at the hospital, and many of the doctors and nurses played themselves. Some patients worked behind the scenes with the movie crew on sets, props, and other needs. Both patients and staff talked about how exciting it was for them to be involved in the film. The Elsinore Theater in downtown Salem premiered the film (at the same time it premiered in Los Angeles) so that the people from the Oregon State Hospital could attend and see the movie they had all worked on.

Oregon State Hospital
The Oregon State Hospital Men’s Baseball team in 1901. Because it was before the name change, their uniforms say OSIA — Oregon State Insane Asylum.

Museum of Mental Health

Inside one of the historic buildings on the site, the Museum of Mental Health is a sobering look at how our society has treated people with mental health challenges. In one of the main galleries, visitors are taken through a timeline of the hospital and how it has grown and changed through the years. This part also clarifies the challenges of other events of the time — during World War II, for example, staffing was challenging because of the many doctors and staff that went off to fight.

The following section, “More Than a Statistic,” has individual stories of patients from the early twentieth century, both men and women. Finally, there is an area that shows the kinds of treatment the patients received, depending on the era in which they were a resident at the hospital. The information in these galleries was often depressing, showing how little people in the past understood the nature of mental illnesses and the ways that people might become better.

Oregon State Hospital
The main building at the Oregon State Hospital and site of the Museum of Mental Health. This building faces the disc golf course. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen

The gallery on the other side of the entrance hall shows the workings of the hospital, from where they got their food to how the residents entertained themselves. This area also displays different types of therapy patients received in recent decades, including music, art, and occupational and physical therapy. The museum has some amazing photos from the hospital’s history showing the men’s baseball team, dances and concerts, and the patients on camping and wilderness trips. There are also artifacts from the hospital’s past that document a wide variety of experiences, including a tea service, giant kitchen implements, musical instruments played by the patients, and a variety of religious objects.

This area also shares the history of the lengthy tunnels under the hospital, which stretch almost two miles. These tunnels moved materials from place to place but are not used often now. The Oregon State Hospital and Mental Health Museum includes a lot of difficult material, but it’s a worthwhile visit for those interested in the history of medicine and mental health in particular.

Oregon State Hospital and Mental Health Museum
2600 Center Street NE, Salem

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