A faded fortress weighs on Fergus Falls

  • Article by: JANET MOORE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2013 - 9:24 AM

FERGUS FALLS, MINN. - For more than a century, a fortress for the mentally ill has anchored this city's north side, its stories deeply intertwined with the small farming community's history.

Originally called the Fergus Falls State Hospital for the Insane, the fate of the imposing brick-and-sandstone behemoth -- which closed for good in 2009 -- has divided this city of 13,000 on Minnesota's north-central prairie.

Renovating the city-owned historic landmark -- which spans an area as big as eight football fields -- would cost millions and require a real estate developer with deep pockets and considerable savvy.

But tearing down the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, or RTC as it was last known, would alienate a devoted group of preservationists who see the bat-wing-shaped structure as an integral part of the community. Even razing it would cost perhaps $5 million.

"This community has been pulled on all sides," said Mark Sievert, Fergus Falls' city administrator.

Now, Twin Cities-based Colliers International is on the hunt for a developer for the former asylum. Dan Peterson, a Colliers real estate broker hired by the city, says at least 10 parties responded to a marketing campaign he launched last fall, and ideas for ways to reuse the complex include a technology hub, a museum and tourist attraction, and a mixed-use complex with shops, condos and a spa.

Late last year, it appeared as though the facility was staring down demolition. But a reprieve surfaced at least until May, when the city once again will assess its options.

As the debate rages in tiny Fergus Falls, the former hospital lies in wait, a dowager that continues to inspire awe.

"Everyone who sees the building for the first time says, 'Wow.' It has that kind of capacity to inspire," Peterson said.

For others, the building coaxes more-primal emotions. "That creepy old place?" said Tammy Stradtman of Starbuck, who was a yearlong patient at the treatment center in the 1990s while suffering from depression. "That place saved my life."

"I hope they save it."

'Architecture was part of the cure'

Many of the state hospitals built across the country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were inspired by Pennsylvania psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, who believed that sunshine, fresh air and fastidiously tended grounds could promote healing among the mentally ill.

Dozens of these Kirkbride facilities were built across the country, and many were labeled as "lunatic" or "insane" asylums. Most, including Fergus Falls, bore a telltale bat-wing design, featuring an imposing tower-like central administration building and two tiered wings sprawling from the structural thorax. Male and female patients were typically housed in separate wings, which were subdivided by wards with the more "excited" patients placed on the lower floors and farthest from the administration building. Natural light and breezes filled the facility, which was shored up with brick hauled in from nearby Pelican Rapids.

"The architecture was part of the cure," said Carla Yanni, a professor at Rutgers University who wrote a book called "The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States."

Ultimately, the Fergus Falls facility, which some locals call the "Kirkbride," cost $1 million to build, roughly $24 million in today's dollars. Construction began in 1888 and was finished in the early 1900s. The facility was designed to hold up to 1,000 patients, but the numbers swelled to more than 2,000 in 1937 as the Depression raged. Until 1969, the hospital was largely a self-sufficient microeconomy with a farm on the grounds -- including vegetables, oats, corn, hay, dairy cattle and hogs, a hothouse, greenhouse, apple and plum orchards. Many patients worked at the facility and were paid for their labor, not to mention the hundreds of local residents employed there, including doctors, nurses, carpenters, electricians and groundskeepers.

"I am constantly amazed and in awe of the building," said Maxine Schmidt, a 78-year-old retired church secretary and lifelong Fergus Falls resident who founded, with her husband, Eugene, the preservation group Friends of the Kirkbride. "I can't imagine Fergus Falls without it."

Various treatments of the era, including electroshock or convulsive therapy, lobotomies, hydrotherapy and insulin-coma therapy, were employed at the facility. In the early 1970s, the Fergus Falls facility began to admit patients with developmental disabilities and chemical dependencies. Still, throughout the 1980s, state officials began questioning whether such large facilities were necessary. At one point, it cost $900,000 a month to heat the Kirkbrde complex.

Treatment of mental illness also changed with the advent of psychotropic drugs and as facilities became more community-based. By 1988, the Minnesota Department of Human Services began contemplating the future of the eight state-operated regional treatment centers, among them Fergus Falls; its fate seemed sealed even then.

The state sold the Kirkbride's center and grounds to the city in 2007, and two years later, the facility closed. It has remained vacant ever since. Between 2002 and 2006, the Legislature approved $7 million in bond funds to dispose of the Kirkbride or invest in its infrastructure. The current deadline to use the funds expires in December 2014 but could be extended with legislative action. City officials claim it takes about 18 months to initiate the complicated demolition process. About $5 million of the original funds remains, since much of the facility's asbestos already has been removed.

Talk of demolishing the Kirkbride dates at least as far back as 2001, when the state still owned the facility, which it then deemed "surplus property." In 2005, "the property was offered to every state agency but received no response," according to a city document.

At the same time, city documents indicate some Fergus Falls residents made it clear that taxpayers didn't want to be burdened with the high cost of maintaining the Kirkbride, a refrain still heard among some constituents at City Hall and in the community. Meanwhile, city officials feel they don't have the expertise to redevelop the property.

Location has several perks

Harold Stanislawski, executive director of the Fergus Falls Economic Improvement Commission, said its reuse is not impossible. "In economic development, how do you eat an elephant?" he asked. "You eat it one piece at a time. ... What you need to do is start someplace and build it out."

He points to the city's proximity to Interstate 94, the Fargo-Moorhead International Airport and several colleges and universities as perks to lure potential developers, plus the availability of "millions" in various tax breaks and subsidies to lessen the financial hit of such a project.

City officials estimate it would cost at least $50 million to rehab the 500,000-square-foot Kirkbride, a project that would require new electrical, heating and cooling systems. And most everyone agrees that a redevelopment project also should provide jobs for the aging community.

In 2005, the idea was floated to turn the still state-owned property into a treatment center for chemical dependency with a focus on methamphetamine addiction, but that fizzled. In 2010, the city hired a Virginia-based firm, Tenica and Associates, which concluded that the Kirkbride could be refashioned into a veterans reintegration center, with outpatient medical services, rehabilitative therapy and employment training.

"There was a gap in services available not only for veterans and their families but existing service members, as well," said Terry Scherling, a retired Air Force major general who conducted the study. "The city ultimately decided it was a bridge too far."

One of the more-promising projects called for a Chinese-American international school. Local developer Jeff Schlossman says he spent several years working with the city and arranging for more than a dozen Chinese universities to partner with North Dakota State University. But leadership changed at NDSU and "pulled back" on the project, Schlossman said recently.

Momentum builds to save complex

In the meantime, momentum has grown in the preservation community to save the complex. Schmidt, the preservationist, says she was moved to "do something" after hearing talk in 2004 that the treatment center may be torn down. She placed an aerial photograph of the facility at her church to raise awareness and was shocked when a lifelong Fergus Falls resident asked, "Where is that?" A petition drive, which ultimately attracted more than 4,000 signatures, was born, and the Schmidts have led at least 400 tours of the facility.

On three occasions since 2000, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota has put the Kirkbride on its annual "Ten Most-Endangered Historic Places List," noting that the Fergus Falls Kirkbride facility is one of the few of its kind left intact in the Midwest.

There are a few interesting examples of adaptive reuse of Kirkbrides, including a project in Traverse City, Mich., now called the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The former Traverse City State Hospital, replete in Victorian-Italianate splendor, is now a mixed-use community patterned after historic European town centers, with condominiums, apartments, shops and restaurants.

Kirkbride buildings "were the best attempt at the time to take care of our fellow human beings," said Raymond Minervini II, co-owner of the Traverse City development. "But some people are creeped out."

Which is what Rebecca Jordan Gleason banks on.

Gleason is the operations manager and part owner at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, a Kirkbride building in Weston, W.Va., that has been renovated into a tourist attraction. In 2007, Gleason's family bought the Weston Kirkbride for $1.5 million, despite the fact that the former state hospital had been abandoned for 13 years.

The renovation has occurred in stages, and the family raises money through various historic and ghost tours and other tourist-oriented events from March through November.

Gleason is interested in redeveloping the Fergus Falls Kirkbride for a similar use, noting the Minnesota facility is in much better shape than the Weston structure. "It is a lot of work," she concedes.

As interest surfaces and abates on the Fergus Falls Kirkbride, the building is occasionally used as a movie set. At least two horror films have been shot inside the building -- none, apparently, of any renown, since city officials are hard-pressed to recall their titles. A recent tour of the facility revealed several patches of fake "blood" left over from the film shoots. Vandalism, particularly around Halloween, is also a perennial problem. Almost every Friday (except when it's desperately cold) the Schmidts lead the curious on their historic tours.

One of the more-interesting sights in the east wing is a room where patients were encouraged to scrawl what they were feeling on the walls. One tome says: "Reach high. For the stars lie hidden in your soul."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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