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Northern State Hospital Closes
Part 4: the death throes, 1973

      Ed. note: Part four of our most popular series on the site is the result of finding four key articles about when decisions were made about closing Northern State Hospital. The first one is from 1973 and gives both the details of the winding down and state government wheeling and dealing, and the effects on Sedro-Woolley. That is followed by articles from 1968-78 that give more background on what led up to the closing and finally the attempt to resuscitate the campus and begin its second life.

A Hospital is drying: A town is grieving
By Tom Read, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Science-Medical Writer, May 6, 1973
(Nurse dorm)
This 1930s-era postcard by the Ellis father-son team from Arlington shows an early nurses dorm. Photo courtesy of Jeannie Packer who hosts this NSH Historical Society website.

      Exodus time has arrived at Northern State Hospital. Its closure, rumored and threatened for the past several years, is official now. Many of the 400 staffers gather at the bulletin board several times a day to look for job notices. The acting superintendent is clearing out his desk — he was the first casualty of Governor Evans' veto pen.
      And for the 265 remaining patients, a trip lies ahead. About 125 will be transferred o Western State Hospital; the remaining 130 will be discharged during the next five months. That is the expectation of Dr. James Reardon, who has been acting superintendent here since 1971. But he no longer holds that post, having been replaced May 1 by Dr. Guilio DiFuria, superintendent of Western State.
      Along with Reardon went three other key officials, the business manager, plant superintendent and director of nursing services, all replaced by Western personnel. For Dr. Reardon, the transition appears relatively easy. "I'm going back into the private practice of psychiatry," he said.
      But for the town of Sedro-Woolley the loss of the hospital could spell deep trouble, for it is school levy time. The district will vote on May 22 for the second and last time on a $790,000 special levy.
      "We know the closure will hurt us. We just don't know how much," mused Al Doorn, local realtor and treasurer of the Special Levy Committee. There is a good chance that the levy's defeat in February was tired to the strong rumors at that time that Northern would close. A good portion of the Northern staff live in Sedro-Woolley, while others live in the nearby communities of Burlington, Mt. Vernon and rural Skagit county. A salesman in Doorn's own office has noticed "12 to 15 houses up for sale" that he knows are owned by families employed at Northern. "It's bad enough if the wife works there, but when they both do, that family is in real trouble," he said.
      Rollie Gaines, president of the Chamber of Commerce, is concerned about the levy, but he says the closure now won't hurt Sedro-Woolley as much as it might have two years ago.

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      "Bendix Steel has more people working now than ever before," he said. "We don't have an empty commercial building in the downtown area and a couple of new ones have been built. He said the Northern Cascades Highway [Hwy. 20 opened in 1972] has not helped the town yet, but he expects it will if more motels, restaurants and camping areas are put in. Not only the hospital staff but the patients too contributed to the town's economy, Gaines said. "Many of them came in to buy clothing. You know, there haven't been any fences out there for years and the patients do a lot of business in town." These town shopping trips, without supervision of hospital personnel, were part of the treatment regimen — getting the patients back on their feet as functioning members of the community who could control their own destiny and cope with life's problems.
      n its heyday, when society's answer to the mentally ill was to stick them as far out of sight as possible, there was a patient population of 2,700 at Northern. The beautiful campus snuggled against the Cascade foothills had its own farm and provided much of its own food.
      Two things changed all that. Society found a conscience and realized the mentally ill have rights, especially rights to treatment, not just custody. And several medical breakthroughs in the '50s introduced drugs that can support a disturbed person and help lead him back into society.
      Patient populations and length of stay started skidding at that point. Last year King county was removed from Northern's "catchment" area and 150 patients were transferred to Western in five months. As it became apparent that Northern no longer was serving at full capacity, plans for alternate use were developed and put forward by legislators from the four counties it serves — San Juan, Island, Whatcom and Skagit.
      It was this alternate use that the legislature approved and Gov. Evans vetoed, Under the plan, Northern would have continued as a limited mental hospital, would have continued geriatric services, mental retardation training and alcoholism treatment center. In addition, certain functions already there in leased quarters would have remained.
      These include two Headstart classes; a department of Public Assistance Office, Sedro-Woolley Senior Citizens Center; an Adolescent Center for the mentally retarded; a sheltered workshop for the trainable mentally retarded; a family planning clinic, and a homemakers' program for women on welfare.
      These latter functions, not directly related to the hospital, will remain. A total of $500,000 has been appropriated to maintain the grounds and provide heat. If the buildings are not heated, even the empty ones, dampnes
      One of the skeleton force of 13 who will remain after the closure is L.M. "Red" Sizemore, president of Local 478 of the Washington State Hospital Employees union. He is a steam engineer and has been employed at Northern for 19 years. He was asked what his union is doing about the closure in terms of helping members find jobs.
      But Sizemore claims he has had "nothing official" and complained that "even the men from Western who were here this week are unsure if the skeleton staff will be 12 or 18 ore 23 or what." He maintains that a similar attempt in California to close mental hospitals and shift patient care onto community mental health systems is failing there and he predicts failure in this state too.
      Some of the staff members express cautious reservations about the new system. The state has given grants to the nearby counties to bolster community mental health centers. Whatcom county was given $200,000, as was Snohomish while Skagit county was given $100,000. In theory, the discharged patients who still require medication and treatment from time to time will receive it at these centers. For those who live in remote areas, a traveling team is envisioned but it is not clear if or when this part of the program will develop.
      As for future uses for the Northern State grounds and facilities, nothing is known. There was a report that Puget Sound Power and Light might use the place as an operating base while constructing a place as an operating base while constructing a planned nearby nuclear generating plant. But Dr. Reardon said some Puget Power men came by, looked at the place and were not interested.
      The wards and private rooms that are now in use or can be put in use with a minimum of effort will provide 300 beds. In addition there are apartments on the grounds which can be "fixed up" to live in, Dr. Reardon said. But if anything is going to happen to Northern State, it probably will have to happen soon. Dr. Reardon said the last major maintenance was in 1967, and since then only a minimum has taken place. Each winter the buildings are subjected to almost constant rain and a good deal of snowfall and cold temperatures.
      For now the closure is official. Patients will be admitted through July 1 and transfers out are to completed by Oct. 1. Then it will be all over, except . . . the legislature meets again this fall.

(Chuck Cruse)
      After 24 years on the job at Northern State Hospital, Charlie Cruse was the last employee on May 8, 1976. See his story at this Journalsite.

Hospital chief resigned by request
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 31, 1968
(The hub building)
This is the Hub building, still standing in 2011, where a theater was located upstairs and downstairs provided lunches and refreshment.

      The recently resigned superintendent of Northern state Hospital said Tuesday there could be a mass departure of top personnel form the institution. Dr. William Voorhees, who said he resigned in mid-January at the request of Dr. William Conte, state director of institutions, "because . . . I had criticized methods of the department," made the statement at a hearing conducted by the Legislative Council's Committee on Institutions and Youth Development.
      He said a "clear and sincere statement" was needed from Conte "concerning the future of state institutions under his direction, and specifically, in answer to questions asked about the future of Northern State Hospital." Voorhees, who headed the hospital since 1960 and leaves Thursday for a position in New York, said that if such a statement isn't submitted soon by Conte, "I am afraid there will be continued unrest and perhaps an exodus of key staff members who are not willing to wait and see what the future will be."
      At least a dozen top members of the hospital staff spoke of unrest at the institution when they appeared at the hearing called by State Sen. George Kupka, D-Tacoma, chairman of the subcommittee, to look into the Voorhees resignation, which took place several days before Charles Martin, superintendent of Rainier School for Retarded Children, at Buckley, resigned. In both cases, "harassment" by Conte was blamed for the officials' action.
      Voorhees and other hospital staff members said Conte and others in his office in Olympia tied their hands with "centralization" and indecision. Dr. Saul Spiro, director of psychiatric residency training, said a sort of military regimentation is taking place at the hospital, in which no one moved until the commander passes an order down through the ranks.
      Dr. Ray Leidig, another staff member, said, "Under Voorhees, the idea of creativity and continued innovation was one of the forces that kept us moving. Now, with his leaving, the direction we're going is static."
      The committee indicated it may probe reports of staff turmoil at Lakeland School, an institution for the retarded, at Spokane. Kupka said Conte will be questioned by the committee in the near future.

Northern State Reprieved for 2 years by proposal
Associated Press, April 10, 1973
      Limited facilities at Northern state Hospital at Sedro-Woolley would be kept open at least two more years with Washington Future Bond issue funds under a proposal approved by the Senate Ways and Mean Committee.
      The proposal, approved by voice vote Monday, would cost a total of $4.4 million, with as much as $3.9 million coming from the bond issue approved by the voters in November.
      Sen. Lowell Peterson, D-Concrete, in whose district the hospital is located, made the proposal, aided by Dean Morgan, administrative assistant to House Speaker Leonard Sawyer, D-Sumner. Morgan indicated that Gov. Dan Evans and the Department of Social and Health Services, both of which have recommended closing the hospital for two biennia, are not enthusiastic about the idea.
      The bond money, although technically from the state general fund, would be from the bonds, which were aimed at paying for community centers for handing social problems. Under Peterson's proposal, only Douglas Hall, called the most modern building, would be kept open, converted to a 100-bed psychiatric hospital to support activities in the region which can[t be handled by community centers. It would be mainly for intensive, short term care, Morgan said. The proposal, an amendment to the bond found appropriation, calls for a psychiatric treatment center of 20 beds, a 70-bed mental retardation and treatment center and a ten-bed alcoholism "dryout" center. Morgan said some severely retarded adults would be moved from Rainier School at Buckley, but no children would be moved.
      Of the $4.4 million total, Morgan said $1.3 million would come mainly from patients fees from Medicaid and Medicare, community agencies participating in the center, and other minor sources. the remainder would come from the bond funds.

$1 million for renovation at Northern State Hospital
Seattle Times, August 4, 1978
      The Economic Development Administration has given Washington state a $1.04 million grant to help, renovate Northern State Hospital in Skagit county. Senators Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. Jackson announced the award yesterday.
      The old hospital will be converted to a multi-service center, with quarters for the Young Adult Conservation Corps [which has evolved into the present Job Corps] and office space for the Department of Social and Health Services. It will house 100 corps staff members and 400 young adults, as well as about 70 employes from the social-health services department. The state will contribute $464,400 to the project.

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