Politics & Government

As hospital demolition approaches, real and imagined ghosts linger

Hospital 'ghosts' linger as demolition nears

Since the old Puget Sound Hospital was closed in 2010, the buildings have been ransacked by vagrants and "copper miners" looking for the valuable recyclable metal. Pierce County construction manager Travis Wakefield leads a tour of the facility th
Up Next
Since the old Puget Sound Hospital was closed in 2010, the buildings have been ransacked by vagrants and "copper miners" looking for the valuable recyclable metal. Pierce County construction manager Travis Wakefield leads a tour of the facility th

The man sleeping in room S302 of the old Puget Sound Hospital on Feb. 24 wasn’t a Pierce County employee.

He wasn’t a patient, either.

Technically, he wasn’t supposed to be there at all. The hospital at 3580 Pacific Avenue was closed and cold-shuttered for good in 2010. The wrecking ball, finally on its way with approval from the County Council, could hit the walls by June.

“Hello, time to get up — you can’t be here,” said Travis Wakefield, county construction project manager, peering through the small window in the door.

The room was furnished with a chair and a desk, a bed and a makeshift end table. Inside, the man stirred.

“I know you can hear me,” Wakefield said. “I see you moving.”

The man lurched up. Wakefield told him to gather any belongings he could carry and clear out within 20 minutes.

For weeks, Wakefield and county workers have been clearing squatters out of the old hospital a few at a time and sealing off entry points — first with plywood sheets, then reinforced steel, welded over the old doors.

For weeks, Wakefield and county workers have been clearing squatters out of the old hospital a few at a time and sealing off entry points — first with plywood sheets, then reinforced steel, welded over the old doors.

A Feb. 16 fire on the ground floor of the old hospital’s south building added urgency, but the stage was set for the long-delayed demolition in November, when County Council members approved a plan to take down the hospital complex and authorized a $2.7 million budget adjustment for the purpose.

Eventually, the site will become the new headquarters for South Sound 911, the emergency dispatch consortium that serves law enforcement and fire agencies throughout the county.

Last week, the process quickened as county leaders approved a six-month demolition contract with the locally based Dickson Co. Within a week, the contractor will begin fencing the grounds and preparing for abatement and demolition, said Bret Carlstad, the county’s facilities management director.

South Sound 911 will pay the costs of demolition with what amounts to an advance rent payment of $2.6 million to the county, which owns the site. That figure represents the ceiling — the bid from Dickson came in at $1.89 million, Carlstad said. Complications could raise the final cost.

“There are parts of this building that date to 1915, 1919,” Carlstad said. “That’s all really cool, but we don’t know for sure what we’re going to find.”

There are parts of this building that date to 1915, 1919. That’s all really cool, but we don’t know for sure what we’re going to find.

Bret Carlstad, director, Pierce County Facilities Management

One thing the contractor is certain to find is asbestos, especially in the older north building of the hospital complex: the distinctive orange-bricked structure that faces Pacific Avenue.

Once favored in construction for its fire-resistant properties, later found to be a carcinogen, asbestos requires special treatment. The north building is laced with it — in ceiling tiles, around plumbing, in insulation.

Safely removing the asbestos and other hazardous materials — a process called abatement — represents the first stage of the demolition process. Carlstad and Wakefield expect it to take as long as three months.

Several public and private players will be involved in that aspect. The contractor must submit a health and safety plan that meets county standards. An environmental consultant must sign off on disposal of hazardous materials.

After that, the real bashing starts. The north and south buildings, as well as the basement section that once housed a morgue, will come down. Carlstad said the late stages of demolition will include efforts to match the intended footprint of South Sound 911’s new digs, still in the planning stages.

Piles of the distinctive bricks, peeled from the facing of the north building, will form a commemorative element in the new South Sound 911 complex, Wakefield said — but that comes later.

His immediate concern is the transients and homeless people who keep finding ways to camp in the complex, finding routes through broken windows and the honeycomb of entry points to both buildings.

Piles of trash, discarded food containers and old needles littered the lightless ground floor as Wakefield and maintenance technician R.C. Baggett walked through the South Building Feb. 24 with a reporter and a photographer.

Piles of trash, discarded food containers and old needles littered the lightless ground floor as Wakefield and maintenance technician R.C. Baggett walked through the South Building on Feb. 24 with a reporter and a photographer.

When the building was cold-shuttered in 2010, the South Building was relatively clean. No more. Now the old corridors resemble a dystopian video game. Wiring dangles from the ceilings. Graffiti taunts are scrawled on the walls. Shattered glass and remnants of cupboards and shelves scatter across one large room on the third floor.

“Probably kids,” muttered Baggett, the maintenance technician. “Partying on Friday night.”

Gaping holes in the sheetrock reveal the trail of metal thieves, “scrappers” looking for copper to sell. They’ve stripped the building.

Wakefield confessed a touch of admiration for their diligence.

“I would say they work as hard or harder than your average trade worker,” he said. “It’s not easy work to strip out all this copper. They have the same tools or better than we have.”

After the Feb. 16 fire, County Executive Bruce Dammeier and Councilman Rick Talbert, who represents the area, hand-delivered letters to hospital neighbors and explained efforts to ramp up security, including a contract with Tacoma police to keep a close eye on the complex at all hours.

The fire wasn’t the only spur for beefed-up security. Neighbors have complained for months about illicit activity on the grounds. Tacoma city leaders formally raised concerns about the same issue in September 2015, after demolition was delayed.

“We’re hoping that the issues around the hospital that remain are gonna be mitigated by all these efforts until the wrecking ball actually gets in there and takes it down,” Talbert said. “It’s important that it be secured in the interim.”

Local lore holds that the hospital is haunted by a ghost named Mabel, a nurse who worked at the hospital decades ago.

“The word is, she still hangs out in the halls, and still patrols the North and the South buildings,” Wakefield said.

More tangible ghosts — the homeless people who continue to camp in the hospital’s empty rooms, only to be shooed away, leave Wakefield feeling empty. During continuing sweeps of the buildings, county workers don’t bully the squatters, he said. Always, they’re given time to gather their belongings, offered assistance and guidance to local shelters and other services.

It doesn’t seem to matter.

“None of those people have accepted assistance,” Wakefield said. “Everyone in here’s kind of shrugged it off. You try to do what you can. On a personal level, it’s quite sad.”

Puget Sound Hospital:

Past, present and future

1905: Northern Pacific Hospital constructed on McKinley Hill for railway workers.

1926: Pierce County General Hospital constructed by county on Pacific Avenue site, structure later known as north building of Puget Sound Hospital.

1952: Pierce County constructs a tuberculosis sanitarium adjacent to Puget Sound Hospital. This second structure is now known as the south building. The complex eventually becomes known as Mountain View Hospital.

1969: Northern Pacific Beneficial Association purchases the site and renames it Puget Sound General Hospital.

1973: The hospital provides a backdrop for scenes in “Cinderella Liberty,” a film starring James Caan and Marsha Mason.

1977: Skybridge connects the north and south buildings of the hospital complex.

1981: Under new ownership, Puget Sound General Hospital is renamed Puget Sound Hospital.

2000: Pierce County purchases the hospital complex to provide behavioral health services.

2010: Pierce County closes and cold-shutters the hospital complex.

2017: Demolition of complex planned on a six-month timeline (March to August).

2017: Emergency dispatch agency South Sound 911 expects to begin construction of new facility in October.

2019: South Sound 911 expects project to be complete by summer 2019.

  Comments