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A backhoe punches through one of the oldest walls at the old Weyburn Mental Hospital. Contractors expect the entire facility to be demolished by October.

A building that was once on the leading edge of psychiatric research and patient care in Saskatchewan has met its date with a demolition crew.

The facility, known for years as the Weyburn Mental Hospital, was completely closed in 2004. Despite attempts to preserve the structure for alternate uses, none was found, leading to the demolition that began in earnest several weeks ago.

This week, the contractor at the site allowed media and a few especially curious community members to go behind the safety fences for a last look around.

Many of the buildings in the complex have already been gutted, leaving a skeleton of steel beams, a convoluted maze of pipes and the roof to be torn down.

Dotted around the site are mounds of ripped-out steel, concrete and other left-overs, including old wheelchairs and appliances.

Millions of bricks

The hospital was an imposing fixture in Weyburn, with some 500,000 square feet of space sprawled across a large plot of land on Queen Street. An estimated 4.5 million bricks went into its construction, with its oldest section dating back 90 years.

In its heyday, it had room for 2,000 patients.

Among those allowed inside the fences were Anne and Joe Robillard, who separately found jobs at the hospital in 1952. Joe was a painter. Anne, a nurse.

By 1953, they had fallen in love. They married and continued working at the hospital for three decades, accumulating a lifetime of memories. As they scanned the growing piles of rubble, they recalled how one room often hosted dances for patients and staff.

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Former staff Joe and Anne Robillard visit the site of the old Weyburn Mental Hospital. Both worked at the facility from 1952 till the late 1980s. They fell in love there. ((Niall McKenna/CBC))

The ballroom wall lay in a heap next to the courtyard where the couple first met.

"It used to be a good place," Anne remembered. "I just hate to see it go."

"It is kind of a crime," Joe added, noting how the building had fallen into disrepair. "You know, it's been let go."

Debra Button, the mayor of Weyburn, said the city is losing an important structure.

"It's all wide open, and it stands so naked and so, so vulnerable," Button observed. "This majestic, huge building that... seemed that it was such a strong fortress. And it's so open and vulnerable. I'm struggling."

Button said the city, which now owns the property, has not decided what will be put on the site once the building is gone, though front entrance is being preserved.

Memorial planned for site

Repairing the building, Button said, was beyond the city's financial ability. She said it would have cost an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million just to restore heat.

Even razing the site is estimated to cost $5 million, a bill the provincial government has promised to pick up.

Alton Tangedal, a Regina-based architect, has been asked to design a fitting memorial for the site.

"It's really an opportunity for people to remember, reflect on, you know, how much better we've done in dealing with people that are dealing with mental issues," Tangedal said, referring to a time when people were routinely institutionalized at the Weyburn Hospital.

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Part of a mural by former patient James Eadie. Painted in 1955 as part of Eadie's treatment at the hospital, it depicts the Regina Riot, which took place 20 years earlier. It cannot be saved by a restoration team. ((Niall McKenna/CBC))

Another element of the hospital that cannot be saved is a mural depicting an aspect of the Regina Riot of 1935.

It was created in 1955 by a patient at the hospital, James Eadie, whose therapy included painting.

Preserving his work would have cost an estimated $250,000.

Instead, archivists have taken several high-resolution photos of it.

In a nod to the building's goliath structure, the province's Culture Ministry has asked that 400,000 bricks be preserved. Some are destined for another historic site in the province, the old Claybank Brick Factory, where they'll be incorporated into a display.

The demolition is expected to take all summer and wrap up in the fall.