I had driven north and found myself here in the town of Sedro-Woolley in the state of Washington on a beautiful day in June, 2018.
I had heard that the landscape architecture was designed by John Charles Olmsted in 1911, while his father, Frederick Olmsted, lived out his final days at McLean Hospital - another refuge for the mentally ill - in Massachusetts. Frederick designed the grounds of McLean Hospital in 1895.
The connections intrigued me. I was curious what the energy of this place would feel like…and I found that even in these remaining tumbledown and dilapidated buildings, the evidence of excellent design was everywhere I looked.
Knowing that his father was in an asylum on the other side of the country, I can only imagine the invisible thread between them traveling through space from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
That thread was echoed over and over again throughout the site planning where the axis of each building related to the next, creating a compound of connection, while the Skagit Valley offered its own protection.
At each gable end there were large openings that lent transparency through each building and flowed into the next.
That beautifully ordered ribbon of sight flowed out of the buildings and on to the horizon, ending at the mountain, the sky, and the light.
I would love to imagine that the patients’ suffering may have been softened by the sense of protection the buildings offered….
…and the openings placed so precisely - perhaps they might have felt that the light was calling, that something beautiful was out there, waiting.
“The whole world it seemed derided Sedro-Woolley as the town that had the bughouse. The hospital was self-contained and didn’t need to reach out to the town for much. maybe for the postal service….”
“…Still, people equated the town with the mental hospital. Many deaths were associated with the closing of Northern State Hospital; patients who couldn’t stand change, staff who could not stand the change. Many, many people got depressed. It was profound.”
Barbara Ward-Thompson, lab technician at NSH
“Northern State, an isolated community within another somewhat-isolated community, fell silent. Dozens of buildings on the main campus were shuttered; an extensive dairy farm that operated on the premises as part of a therapeutic work program closed, its concrete barns left to crumble in the often-stiff wind.”
Ron Judd, Pacific NW Magazine
“The…remains became a curiosity known mostly to amateur ghost hunters, a couple of horror-film producers, and chroniclers of ghost towns and forgotten history. But local townspeople have never lost sight of Northern State’s important history — nor its imagined potential.”
“the farm enabled the hospital to support itself. The Northern State Hospital’s farm not only allowed the facility to be self-sufficient, but was even productive enough to help feed other hospitals in the state.”
“The farm had every animal one would expect to see from cows to chickens, and also canning buildings to preserve their stores.”
“In addition to providing food and crops for the facility, the farm also gave the patients a place where they could work and socialize. At its height, the dairy farm was the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi.“
“The 720-acre farm, part of the institution complex laid out by John Charles Olmsted and James Frederick Dawson of the Olmsted Brothers firm between 1910 and 1913 , raised dairy cattle, pigs, poultry, flowers, and vegetables.”
Jane Roy Brown
“Sedro-Woolley lies near the Skagit River, which carves a valley through the foothills of the North Cascades. The farm abutted the 227-acre hospital campus, with fields stretching out below, furnishing not only food but also pastoral scenery for patients housed on the bluff above.”
Jane Roy Brown
“The North Cascades form a distant backdrop to this panorama. The entire institution, including adjacent parcels with reservoirs, covered 1,080 acres.”
Jane Roy Brown
“The landscape architects “took advantage of features of the natural landscape…They located the hospital buildings on a shelf of land that projected outward and dropped down to tillable bottomland. But they also did some grading on the main campus to form reflecting ponds with trees and walkways.”
“What was unique here at the time, was that they extended the institutional approach to the organization of the agricultural elements. The organizational framework developed by the Olmsteds was more advanced and complete than is typical in the farming and dairy operations in the immediate area.”
“Today the property is a rare intact example of an institutional landscape that reflects a Reform-era therapeutic approach to illness and disability, emphasizing the spiritual and moral benefits of nature.”
Jane Roy Brown
“These [hospital] designs were based, wherever possible, on providing expansive outlooks and verdant surrounds that made clear separations from ‘the outside world.”
“The genius behind the Olmsted aesthetic was the seeming simplicity, which was intended to let nature speak in broad strokes rather than distracting the mind with details.”…there was a balanced interplay of site, setting, and purpose.”
“Occupational therapy was Northern State’s mantra, and many patients worked on the dairy farm. An offshoot canning operation produced large quantities of canned meat, applesauce and other goods.”
“Only a short distance off Highway 20, the campus is out of sight of the millions of tourists who drive by it every year…Few people outside Sedro-Woolley even know it’s there.”
“Manure spread from the dairy on local fields produced spectacular spring wildflower displays.”
“Herds of deer and elk strolled around the campus, as they do today.”
More information can be found on this wonderful site: (click below)