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Former state hospital still shaping Wilsonville

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Bocce courts, shown being used by Costa Pacific CEO Rudy Kadlub, are a part of the European-flavored Piazza Park at Villebois, which was dedicated last week with a ceremony honoring the former Dammasch State Hospital.The Lehan family’s influence on Wilsonville has been profound over the past half-century.

And one of the biggest factors in that influence was likely the sale of family property, along with that of other local farmers, to the state of Oregon. The state, in turn, built Dammasch State Hospital, which opened in 1961 and brought with it an immediate surge in the local population and then the local business community.

“Wind things back to the early ’50s here, and Wilsonville was a community of about 800 people, mostly farmers, and very few were college educated,” said Charlotte Lehan, former Wilsonville mayor and Clackamas County Board of Commissioners chairwoman. “In 1954, Interstate 5 came through and Boones Ferry — the ferry — closed. So we were at a point there in Wilsonville where the downtown of Wilsonville was closing, it was a dead end, and there was no reason to get off of Interstate 5 here unless it was going to turn into a big truck stop.”

The following year, her grandfather, James Lehan, partnered together with six other Wilsonville farmers and cobbled together a land deal with the state that eventually would transform the countryside.

“He was ever the promoter,” Lehan said. “He wrote very flowery letters about how therapeutic the environment here would be for their patients, but, of course, his main interest was economic development. By 1958, Dammasch State Hospital was under construction and scheduled to open in the fall of 1960.”

The opening was pushed back to 1961, but the end result was the same.

“Having Dammasch locate here in this small, at the time receding, farm community changed it profoundly and forever,” said Lehan, who recounted how her fourth-grade class was transformed by the overnight addition of several new students. And in a school with fewer than 100 students in grades one through eight, that was a big deal.

“Almost overnight, college for kids in the community, the new ones and the existing ones, college became an expectation rather than an extra,” Lehan said. “And it almost meant that Interstate 5 would not turn Wilsonville into another big truck stop, but a vital and complete community, and that’s what Villebois exemplifies here, so the impact continues.”

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Piazza Park at Villebois features a fountain, cobblestoned pavement and a host of benches for people to relax.

The Dammasch legacy

Fast-forward to the turn of the 21st century and beyond and Dammasch continues to play a role in how Wilsonville has grown.

Last Thursday, the most recent piece of evidence was formally unveiled to the public as Piazza Park at Villebois was celebrated with a dedication ceremony under the first sunny skies all week. The piazza is a public gathering space at the heart of Villebois, the award-winning planned development built on the former Dammasch property. It features a European-style fountain, cobblestone gathering space, bocce ball courts and plenty of benches. It also pays tribute to the legacy of Dammasch in the form of a commemorative bronze plaque.

Led by Costa Pacific CEO Rudy Kadlub, head of the development team responsible for helping transform the Dammasch site into Villebois, the piazza was dedicated with a celebration aimed at recognizing the hospital’s role in helping build Wilsonville as a whole.

It was much less about the public square and its European-inspired comfort than it was about the land underneath and the people who lived there long before Villebois was conceived.

Planning of Villebois started in 2002, Kadlub said, with a focus on the then-unique tenets of connectivity, diversity and sustainability. Inspired by Orenco Station in Hillsboro and other Smart Growth development, Villebois was designed from the outset to combine small business with housing ranging from apartments to estate-sized single-family homes. But that’s not all.

It’s the second of those ideals, diversity, which continues to distinguish Villebois from other developments to the present day.

“We use those terms in the broadest sense that you can imagine,” Kadlub said. “And one of the diverse things we were asked to do, and ultimately embraced, was to integrate housing for people who may have been displaced by the closing of the hospital, or others who suffered from addictions or mental illnesses, to integrate housing for those people into a brand new community. I didn’t know anything about that at the time, and I was nervous about it as one might guess.”

Thanks to a special trust fund set aside by the state Legislature to use the proceeds of the sale of the Dammasch property to private developers for mental health housing, there was money to ultimately fund five residential facilities in Villebois that house people with various types of mental illness.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Costa Pacific CEO Rudy Kadlub helped plan and begin development at Villebois more than a decade ago. Last week he helped dedicate a new public square called Piazza Park at Villebois."It’s really difficult for you to pick out (the five residential facilities), they certainly don’t look institutional,” said Kadlub. “They look like every other home or apartment in this community, and it’s wonderful to see how the homeowners and apartment dwellers have embraced their neighbors here.”

A number of representatives from the National Association on Mental Illness, or NAMI, were on hand for the dedication, as well as persons who have benefited from the residential housing made possible by the Mental Health Housing Trust Fund. One former Dammasch resident even attended.

“The good thing that came out of it, one is the housing trust fund, the other thing is that we made a commitment as a state agency not to put someone out of the hospital unless there was a place for them,” former director of the state Department of Addictions and Mental Health Bob Nikkel told the assembled crowd. “We started off with about 200 people when we closed this hospital — there were 350 beds there — and we have 2,000 such placements around the state. No one’s ever heard of them because they work, and that’s often the truth of mental health care. The results here speak for themselves.”

Josh Kulla can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 113. Follow him on Tweeter, @wspokesman.



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