ST. PETER, MINN. — In an unusual display of openness for a once-secretive state institution, the Minnesota Security Hospital invited the public Wednesday to tour nearly $56 million in new housing for patients with severe mental illness.

The tour is part of an ongoing effort by Minnesota's largest psychiatric facility to shed its image as a dangerous, prisonlike institution and provide patients transitioning to the community with a more humane living environment.

"We need to establish a new understanding about us to the community — that we're not a prison," said Carol Olson, the hospital's executive director. "We are a treatment environment."

The Security Hospital, which provides evaluation and therapy for about 350 patients deemed by the courts to be mentally ill and dangerous, does not normally welcome public visitors. But on Wednesday, the entrance to its upper campus in St. Peter was marked with colored signs, and staff could be seen early in the morning placing flowers and colored balloons near the entrance as visitors poured into the parking lot. By 11 a.m., the facility was already packed with curious visitors, retired hospital workers and relatives of patients.

The rare tour gave the public its first opportunity to see a series of dormitory-style buildings that will house a total of 48 psychiatric patients transitioning back to the community, as well as several smaller units for people struggling with more acute symptoms.

Unlike the austere, brick buildings that dot much of the campus, the new units have spacious courtyards, sensory rooms with soothing music and thick blankets, a gym and outdoor recreation area, hair salon, and halls with natural light and soft colors. The new buildings are still under construction and will open in January.

"It's important to remember that patients live here almost eight years on average, so it's incumbent on all of us to make it feel as much like a home as possible," said Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper, who spoke at the event.

Piper said the improvements marked only the beginning of a larger, more ambitious overhaul of the state's first mental hospital, which opened 150 years ago. The Dayton administration is seeking another $70 million from the Legislature to renovate its older facilities and $23 million to hire several hundred more staff.

The facility has a less desirable staff-to-patient ratio than similar institutions in other states, which Minnesota officials say is partly to blame for the hospital's limited therapy and persistent assaults on staff. A proposal to fund these improvements failed to pass the 2016 Legislature.

"This is still a half-done project," said Piper, who pledged to return to the State Capitol this spring. "We need the money to see this project through."

Even so, the open architecture and wide-open spaces of the new residences mark a dramatic change for an institution with a sometimes grim and violent history. Patient rooms in the new acute-care units have real beds and dressers, instead of mattresses placed on cement slabs, as in some older rooms.

The new units also have what hospital officials call "clear sightlines" — large windows wrapping around staff observation decks, giving them unobstructed views of the halls and patients. In the older units, poor sightlines have been blamed for patient assaults and outbreaks of violence. The new living units are also better designed to prevent suicides, with enhancements such as breakaway hooks in the showers to prevent hangings.

In the final stages, the architects consulted with patients' relatives on items such as lighting, colors and furniture. There is less brick and more shades of green and blue. The sharp fluorescent lights that still permeate the old buildings have been replaced with large windows and soft lighting. And as hospital staff were quick to point out, there is no more razor wire.

Curious visitor

Once known as the St. Peter Asylum for the Insane, the Security Hospital has struggled to fulfill its often-conflicting missions as both a treatment center and a secure facility for people too dangerous to live in the community. In January 2014, a patient was stomped to death in his room by another patient, a killing that state investigators later blamed on hospital negligence.

While intensified training and more direct therapy have reduced assaults this year, hospital officials said many of the existing living units still have poor sightlines and narrow halls, which put patients and staff at risk.

Colleen Ryan, the hospital's chief nurse administrator who grew up in St. Peter, appeared excited as she led a crowd of visitors on a winding tour of the new buildings. Both her father and mother worked at the hospital, and she recalled visiting the facility in the 1960s as a child.

"It was dark and scary," she said. "It looked and felt like a prison. Now it's a place for hope and recovery."

Many of the visitors Wednesday had never seen the inside of a psychiatric institution. Mike O'Neil, 52, a forklift driver from Mankato, said he came "mostly out of curiosity" after reading about the renovations in a newspaper. He also volunteers at a home for troubled children, and said he has grown frustrated seeing many of them cycle in and out of facilities without proper treatment for their underlying mental illnesses. "It's a merry-go-round that never ends," he said.

Wednesday's tour, O'Neil said, marked another step toward reducing stigma and bringing mental illness "out of the darkness."

"It's hard enough to lock people up, but if we have to do it, then we should at least make it as humane as possible."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308