Hazel Patton has a thing for old buildings. “I’m a preservationist,” she says. “I love old structures.” A Salem resident for more than 40 years, Patton has helped restore 13 historic properties and was the driving force behind the development of the carousel at Salem’s Riverfront Park, which opened in 2001.
So it should come as no surprise to find Patton behind Salem’s latest historic project — the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health. The museum opened its doors in October of 2012 and aims to tell the story of the patients, staff and the hospital itself, which began treating people in 1883.
In 2007 Patton heard that the original hospital building was slated for demolition. “When they said they were going to tear down that beautiful building, it did not sit well,” she says. Her love of historic structures spurred her into action. “Four of us got together and nominated the entire campus to the historic register.” Thanks to their efforts, the hospital campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
During the application process, Patton and her co-organizers explored the hospital’s underground tunnels and rooms full of artifacts from its 120-plus-year history. The experience changed her. “I went in wanting to save an old building. Then I realized there were so many stories to tell. I became an advocate.”
That advocacy is apparent to anyone who walks through the museum. The displays recount 19th and 20th century medical treatments as well as the lives of patients, many of whom were at the hospital for conditions that might seem surprising today — epilepsy, alcoholism, syphilis, drug addiction and cancer. And the advocacy remains part of the mission of the museum’s nonprofit board of which Patton is president; it includes two former and one current patient.
The museum narrates patient life, which included work like farming, weaving, leatherwork and producing a newspaper as well as play — a jazz band, baseball team and dances. Ken Kesey fans will also find a section devoted to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the movie that made the hospital famous.
Patton encourages people to come visit and bring their questions. “We especially like to have the young people come in because they have not had that experience of coming to the campus.”
Patton believes the hospital is an important part of Salem’s past and present. “There was a lot of community involvement and then it became almost an island. Part of our role is to bring the community back.”