SEDRO-WOOLLEY — The Port of Skagit is allowing limited public access to the Sedro-Woolley Innovation for Tomorrow (SWIFT) Center.
While the port is waiting for signs to be made that will direct visitors to which areas of the former Northern State Hospital campus are open and which remain off limits, bicycle tours are being offered.
Those on a Willowbrook Manor Tea and Tour are led along a designated route, and get to hear stories of those who worked, lived and sometimes died at the former mental hospital during its operation from 1912-73.
“I just felt like the story needed to be told,” Willowbrook Manor owner Terry Gifford said of her desire to extend her business’s bike tours to the campus. “It gives a window into a form of treatment for the mentally ill that includes the environment and work ... There was a place up there that did a lot of good for a lot of people.”
Elsa Bletsch Miller, who is leading the tours, narrates parts of the hospital’s history she learned from working on the book “Under the Red Roof” for her senior project at Sedro-Woolley High School and from her studies at Western Washington University.
She and Gifford said they credit “Under the Red Roof” author Mary McGoffin with sparking interest in the old hospital and inspiring the effort to preserve what is left of the campus.
“She’s kind of the savior in my mind of the property,” Miller said. “Ten years ago it did not seem like this was going to happen. It seemed like it was going to crumble away.”
About the time the book was published in 2011, part of the campus was added to the National Register of Historic Places. That designation means the buildings and landscape that remain are worthy of preservation.
The Port of Skagit took ownership of the campus in June 2018 with the goals of preservation and reuse at the forefront. Those goals have been shared for several years by the port, Skagit County and city of Sedro-Woolley, which are working together toward redevelopment of the campus.
Stories explored during the tours include those about rule-breaking nurses who worked at the hospital, children who grew up in the finest building on the campus, patients who endured psychological treatments no longer practiced and the famous family responsible for the beautiful architecture.
“I like to understand the everyday folks and what they were all about,” Miller said of her focus for the narrative.
Miller said she’s looking forward to having greater access to the campus.
“It hasn’t been super accessible,” she said. “I remember in high school trying to get out there and it was a no-go.”
Today, outside of those on the bike tours, visitors who go onto the campus are shooed out, often by those who work at remaining behavioral health treatment facilities and by security workers at the Cascades Job Corps College & Career Academy.
The port has signs being made that will show which areas will be open to pedestrians, bikes or vehicles, and which will be closed.
When the signs are installed, along with fencing, much of the central campus will be opened for exploration on what will be called the “Historic route.”
An area near the roundabout entrance will remain closed due to state Military Department operations. The northern portion of the campus, where Job Corps is located, will also remain closed.
Those areas will be marked with “No access” signs.
“This will give visitors clear way-finding directions to the public areas ... and fencing will also create a natural boundary between the public areas and the business areas, limiting the disruption and impact to the daily operations of our current campus tenants,” port Community Outreach Administrator Linda Tyler said.
When the campus is opened to the public, access will be limited to certain hours of the day.