The end of an era at PHMG


​The last providers at PeaceHealth Medical Group’s Downtown Eugene clinic quietly made their exit this month, closing the doors on a site with a long and important history in Eugene’s medical community.

Though it’s been through several incarnations, 1162 Willamette St. has been a hub for community health care for nearly 90 years. It’s been a primary and specialty care clinic for the last 22 years, but the site was once also home to a nursing school and—until 1989—a hospital, where babies were born, surgeries performed, emergency care delivered.
The site’s significance may be lost on many of the clinic’s newer caregivers and patients, who by all accounts are delighted with their remodeled new digs at PHMG University District, at 1200 Hilyard St. But for others with longstanding ties to the old Eugene Clinic and Hospital, seeing it abandoned is bittersweet.

“Yeah, it’s a little sad—I spent 19 years there,” said Dr. Bob Loomis, a retired urologist whose wife was born at Eugene Hospital.

Loomis was one of several current and retired caregivers queried by PHMG officials as to how they’d like to commemorate the building’s closure and preserve its historic record, including a “family tree” tapestry showing physicians from over the decades. The tree, along with a bulletin board loaded with news clippings, photos and letters and a display of medical equipment from the clinic’s early days, occupied a prominent nook in the building’s first-floor lobby.

Those items have all been collected, photographed and placed in storage for now; you can watch a commemorative slide show that features many of them at
this link.

The Eugene Hospital & Clinic was founded in 1923, a partnership between two groups of practicing physicians. Drs. William Kuykendall, Norton Winnard, Merle Howard, Philip Bartle, Charles Donahue and William Neal saw the benefits of joining forces, just as their successors did 72 years later when the Eugene Clinic and its 55 physicians merged with PeaceHealth, creating PeaceHealth Medical Group.

he original building was razed and replaced in the mid-1960s; in ensuing years came additions and remodels, along with the natural churn of providers and other caregivers. By the time of the 1995 merger, 147 primary and specialty care physicians had worked at the Eugene Clinic.

Dr. Larry Hirons, a family practice physician, began practicing at the Eugene Clinic in 1969 and in November made the move to PHMG, University District. Prior to his 42 years working in the building, Hirons was a patient there; he remembers having his tonsils and adenoids removed as a young boy, and undergoing arm surgery following a car accident in seventh grade.

“People have asked me, ‘Do you have nostalgia about leaving there?’” he said. “To me it’s not so much the bricks and mortar, but rather the people. It’s the stories and relationships that are long and deep.”

Hirons, who authored a history of the clinic in 1973, said the physicians would eat lunch together most days at a “monster dining room table” in the basement, enjoying fare from the hospital’s top-notch cafeteria. Certain doctors, including Dr. James Brooke, were notorious practical jokers.

“You never wanted to let your guard down around the dining room table,” Hirons said, recalling how one physician who let slip he was planning to diet found his trousers getting surprisingly tight. Turns out his colleagues were regularly stealing his pants while he was in surgery and having them hastily altered at a nearby tailor’s before returning them. He only found out about the trick when they presented him with the bill.

Dr. Tom Roe, a pediatrician who started the same year as Hirons, retired six years ago after spending all but the first few years of his medical career at 1162 Willamette St.

“I do feel nostalgic about it, but I’m a nostalgic character anyway,” said Roe, who is on the PeaceHealth Oregon Region Governing Board and works with PeaceHealth on several projects.

The prospect of a merger between Eugene Clinic and its longtime competitor was hard for some to swallow at the time, he recalled.

“In those days you were either a Sacred Heart person or a Eugene Clinic person, and there wasn’t a lot of love lost,” he said—though he noted he had a foot in both worlds, serving on the Medical Staff at Sacred Heart outside of his Eugene Clinic practice.

Both Roe and Hirons said the unusually collegial, "family" feel of the Eugene Clinic began to dissipate after hospital closed, the clinic grew and new satellite sites opened in the wake of the merger.

The old clinic holds significance not only for those who worked there. It was patients, in fact, who first raised questions about what would happen to the lobby relics and what might be done to preserve the site’s history, said Gay Wayman, PHMG’s Manager of Physician Leadership Development.

“There were patients who were born in that building, whose parents were born in that building, who had their tonsils out in that building,” she said. “There’s also just some history buffs who think the Lane Historical Society ought to have it all."

In fact, PHMG is talking with the Historical Society about finding a place for the items.

Meanwhile, the fate of the now-empty, 140,000-square-foot building, as well as the 7.600-square-foot annex that once housed Espresso PRN and the Optical Shop, is still up in the air; sale and lease are both possibilities.

Loomis said he would have liked to see the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs purchase it for a new clinic, thereby preserving its role as a community medical facility, but the VA took that option off the table.