Thursday, January 10, 2013

Northern State Hospital, Sedro-Woolley

Wednesday, January 2, was one of the nicest days we've had in a long while, sunny and pleasant after months of rainy and cold weather.  My son-in-law and I decided to spend the day doing photography at the Northern State Hospital, a place I had heard of, but had never visited, except for one building.  Our handicapped son was for six weeks at the North Sound Treatment Center, a modern facility on the grounds of the old hospital, but during the time we visited him there we only caught glimpses of the older buildings and grounds.  This time we intended to explore them thoroughly and having seen pictures of the abandoned and derelict buildings on the internet, hoped to come home with some good photos, though we were unsure of what we would find, since there are other things now going on at the site.

Twin Sisters from Highway 9
(above also)

Northern State Hospital lies just off the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) on the east side of the town of Sedro-Woolley.  The Cultural Landscape Foundation describes it as follows: "Undertaken by the State of Washington in 1909, Northern State Hospital was constructed as a state of the art, self-sustaining occupational therapy and treatment facility for the mentally ill. Masterfully designed by Olmsted Brothers, the site included patient and staff housing, a dedicated reservoir, lumber mill, quarry, steam plant, and more than 700 acres of farming and livestock operations. The hospital ended operations in 1973 and, today, the Washington State Department of General Administration and Skagit County are stewards of the site, and has converted the agricultural area into the Northern State Recreation Area."

Hospital and Administration Buildings

The hospital itself and the administration buildings are now off-limits, as we quickly found out.  We had driven on the site to take pictures of some of the buildings and though were able to get a few photos were soon informed that we were not welcome.  The agricultural area to the east of the hospital, however, is now a park and  we spent a good part of the day walking the paths and photographing the derelict buildings, some of which are falling to pieces.  The buildings include stables and barns and a cannery where the residents of the hospital once worked canning strawberries and vegetables: one of the signs said that as much as 1.5 million pounds of vegetables a year were canned, all of which were produced on the site.  Some of the equipment from these efforts remains and is another attraction at the site.

Barns and Stables




  1. gorgeous patina
    ravishing colors
    nature reclaiming man’s work
    textures (wood/metal/brick/concrete)
    fruit fall
    mossy surfaces
    colors of the buildings/walls/fences/ metal objects

    Such a plethora of vivid impressions from a wonderful series of photographs --Ron.
    It is too bad they would not give you access to the entire grounds. But we certainly get a very kindred spirit sort of feeling from the cross-section of the entire that you have provided here.

    I love these old buildings that gradually are taken over by wildlife and plants.
    It seems so fitting that in the end Nature wins what we try to civilize.
    The worn paints, the elegant proportions of the frames/pipes/furniture make it all seem rather like the garden has been (literally) brought indoors.

    1. I could have spent a week at this place and we intend to go back, the three of us, Nance, Edward and I, the first chance we get. All the things you mentioned and more are feast for the eyes and an incredible photo opportunity. Even without a camera it would have been wonderful to wander around, though, and even the part that is open to the public is very extensive.

      In a way, though, rather sad, too. It was designed and operated as a self-sufficient institution for the mentally ill, providing work, recreation and income for them (it was designed by a man named Olmsted) and was a model in its day. I have mixed feelings about institutions of this sort but if we have them they should be like this.

    2. We open the campus itself to walking tours and open the chapel and onsite museum once a year. This year will be September 14th. Please come and photograph at that time. It is free to the public and very informative. Due to the at risk programs on the campus and the liability issues it is closed to the public all other times. Judy 360-856-3162 North Cascade Gateway Center

    3. Thanks for the information and if at all possible I'll be there on September 14th.

  2. I think that some institutions are necessary for the complex cases of illness and cannot be substituted by group homes. These types of places can be acceptable with enough social mingling in the community to offset the institutionalization of folks. My sister for example is at an extended care center and yet we are still around. She needs such support and I feel that the movement of the Alberta government to place all of our children with special needs and medical needs into group settings is in the end a cost cutting measure that denies them full humanity. This place, although an institution has such a calming religious feel to it--as if the mentally ill were to be loved and respected and not spat upon as they are for the most part in our society.
    Fear disappears here; the mind soothes and what respect is missing to our mentally ill might have been given back to them by caring professionals in such sensitive and natural settings where the mentally ill might have had the chance to work and play as ordinary citizens without stigma and rebuke.

    I feel this place is sort of like a monastery and it would be perfect for the mentally ill--not a place of sequestration and imprisonment but for safety, cherishing and expansion of the spirit.

    1. Thanks for your response, Julie. We have a handicapped son who has a genetic disorder called Smith-Magenis and who has been in several different institutions for the past 10 years when it became impossible for us to handle him. The institution he is now in (where we visit him often) is like a family setting and we believe he is more comfortable there than if we were at home. Certainly it is better than being in the community or in other group settings which in his case have been a complete disaster. Our state government is trying to do the same thing as yours and move them all into the community, but we believe that is a mistake.

      Northern State was considered to be and proved to be a wonderful place for those who were there providing exactly the kind of setting that you describe. The tragedy is that after about sixty years its use was discontinued and the place insofar as it has not been allowed to go to ruin is used for other purposes.

  3. Ron, I was so happy to find these images! I love to explore old buildings and you took me on a great journey. I think that the wonderful photographic aspects of overgrown moss and plants is especially beautiful in the Pacific Northwest and you captured the essence of these qualities. Your use of light and your direct approach to composition made these a treat to view. Thank you.

    1. Wow! Thank you for the nice comments, Lou Anne. It is hard to convey to those who have never been in the Pacific Northwest the lush greenness of the moss and mossy forests and the rank growth that one often finds. Appreciate very much you kindness.


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