The city of Anoka has one year to figure out what to do with three shuttered buildings on the grounds of the onetime “Anoka Asylum for the Insane,” or the century-old structures could be torn down.

The buildings are owned by Anoka County, whose board of commissioners recently gave that message.

City and county have gone back and forth on the buildings for several years. The city wants to save them, saying they’re a critical link to the past for the historic river town. Thousands of patients passed through the hospital campus from the time it opened as the “asylum” in 1900 until it closed as a treatment center in 1999, replaced by a new hospital nearby. It operated much like a small town of that time, with a farm, “cottages” where patients lived, and a cemetery. It also was a major employer.

County officials acknowledge the historic link but note that it costs $66,000 a year just to minimally maintain the large two-story buildings called “cottages.” The structures need millions of dollars in repairs, and whatever new use they’d get would have to be compatible with their neighbors — the county workhouse and a homeless shelter, both on the original campus, and the new psychiatric hospital.

“We agree they are historic. We also agree there is no use for them and they are terribly … expensive to keep,” said County Commissioner Scott Schulte. “If after a year they have not made progress or come up with viable options, then we will proceed to demolition.”

If progress is sufficient in a year, the city will get another year to solidify plans and start the project.

An idea

City officials say they have an idea for the buildings and possibly a way to pay for it.

Inspired by a recent project to convert historic buildings at Fort Snelling into housing for homeless veterans, Anoka officials see similar potential for “Cottages 2, 3 and 4.”

They hope that, as at Fort Snelling, federal dollars and private partners could help pay for the project.

“That campus has an incredible history, not all of it pretty but all of it very important,” said Anoka City Manager Tim Cruikshank. “In order to be a historic community, we have to try to preserve the past. Our council feels strongly about putting forward a real honest and good effort about seeing what can be done.”

City officials plan to contact the state’s two U.S. senators to see if federal funding is available, Cruikshank said. They’ll also explore whether state Legacy and other funding sources are available.

Asylum’s history

The Anoka Asylum was one of 13 state hospitals and institutions for mentally ill and disabled adults and children.

The first 100 residents, labeled “incurables” with persistent mental illness, arrived there in March 1900. Over the next century, thousands of patients lived at the site, later renamed the Anoka State Hospital and then the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center.

In 1949, Gov. Luther Youngdahl visited the hospital on Halloween night and, using a torch, burned hundreds of leather restraints and straitjackets in front of thousands. He said the burning “liberated patients from barbarous devices and the approach which these devices symbolized,” according to historical accounts. Youngdahl moved to improve funding and conditions in the state’s hospitals.

The hospital operated until 1999, when residents were transferred to the new facility.

Turned over to county

The state deeded the old hospital campus to Anoka County in December 2000, and the county uses several of the original buildings to house the workhouse, the homeless shelter and county social services offices. Even if the three buildings in question are razed, most of the original campus and its buildings will remain.

Schulte said he’s open to the city’s idea, but there are hurdles.

“Our biggest obstacle is expense,” said Schulte, pointing out that reroofing two of three buildings would cost more than $2 million.

Another hurdle, he said, is what the buildings would be used for after they’re redone.

According to state law, the buildings will need to have a government or public use, Schulte said. They cannot be sold to a private developer.

“It’s not simple or easy, but we think it’s worth putting some effort into it,” Cruikshank said.