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As demolition begins, memories of former hospital come to life

GRANTS PASS — Large chunks of the Dimmick Tower came crumbling down this weekend as crews made headway on a project to demolish the former hospital building.

Built in 1964, the four-story building at Dimmick and A streets was once the site of Josephine Memorial Hospital, which later became Three Rivers Community Hospital's Dimmick campus. For longtime residents, the structure's dismantling marked the end of an era and sparked nostalgia about major life events that occurred there — births, deaths, surgeries, entire careers.

Some took to Facebook to reminisce, with one woman saying she had the same nurse for the birth of all three of her children. One man recounted how staff at the hospital saved his pneumonia-stricken son's life. One person compared the building's demise to losing an old friend.

Norine Hall gave birth to two children there — a son in 1983 and a daughter in 1988. She was a little sad when she saw photos of the building's upper floors being demolished.

"That was the delivery area there," she said.

She said she had a "wonderful" experience with the staff at Josephine Memorial and got to know some of them personally. One nurse, Mary, became pregnant around the same time she did, and ended up giving birth at almost exactly the same time — in fact, Hall had to wait for Mary to vacate her bed in the maternity ward before she could deliver her son.

"The day I went in to deliver, there was no room for me. All the beds were taken," she said. "I was up on the fourth floor pacing."

The next patient scheduled to leave was Mary. Once the bed was finally available, Hall was so apprehensive about giving birth, she didn't want to get in it. She paced some more until she couldn't walk and had to lie down.

"I had him that evening," she said of her son. "It was quite an experience."

Mary also had a boy, and the two women's sons grew up together.

"They've been friends all these years," she said.

Another nurse who helped deliver her daughter later became her neighbor.

The doctor who delivered Hall's children, Dr. Raymond Gambrill, has stopped by the tower a couple of times to watch the dismantling process. Now retired, Gambrill estimated he delivered around 3,000 babies during his career, although he didn't keep track.

Gambrill has been in Josephine County since 1974, and said what stands out most for him about working in the Dimmick Tower is the time with his colleagues.

"You work with them all the time, day and night," he said. "A lot of really good memories. You're part of a team."

One delivery stands out in his mind, too: Back in the days before cellphone cameras, a proud husband and father-to-be went to great lengths to set up video equipment in the delivery room to record the birth of his child. The delivery went smoothly, the baby came out healthy, and tears of joy were shed. At the end, the husband realized he had forgotten to turn on the camera.

"He was so into his wife and child," Gambrill said with a laugh.

Gambrill said seeing the tower torn down is bittersweet.

"Basically, a hospital is a real, total slice of life," he said. "All kinds of triumphs, all kinds of tragedies, all kinds of tears, laughter."

On Sunday afternoon, construction crews used a high-reach excavator to carefully tear down walls on the south side of the building. The heavy machinery could have doubled for one of the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" as it chewed off chunks of wall and chomped through tangled clumps of rebar. Passing motorists slowed to gawk at the activity, and some drivers parked and got out to take pictures and watch.

Dimmick Tower sits on county property, and the Board of Commissioners in October approved a nearly $1 million contract with Portland-based Munitor Construction to demolish it. The project is being funded by state grant money and a low-interest loan from the Oregon Business Development Department.

The county was exploring alternative uses for the tower, but eventually decided it was too costly to salvage the moldy, water-damaged building, which contains lead and asbestos.

Reach Grants Pass Daily Courier reporter Melissa McRobbie at 541-474-3806 or mmcrobbie@thedailycourier.com

As demolition begins, memories of former hospital come to life