Fans plan to hug historic Minn. mental hospital

Kirkbride in Fergus Fall
This June 9, 2012, photo shows people at at SummerFest outside the Kirkbride in Fergus Fall, Minn. People who want to preserve the former state hospital, also known as the Kirkbride, are organizing a "group hug" of the building on Saturday. The city has set a demolition deadline for the building, which dates to the late 1800s but has fallen into disuse.
AP Photo/The Daily Journal, Marie Noplos

Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Time is running out for the old state mental hospital in Fergus Falls, a huge wedding cake of a building originally constructed to bring light and air into psychiatric wards.

So on Saturday, the building's advocates plan to gather on its grounds for a giant group hug around the blocks-long, horseshoe-shaped structure. Friends of the Kirkbride are hoping the event will bring attention to the 124-year-old building's plight.

The old hospital is one of a dwindling number of asylums built under the philosophy of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, who wanted to humanize treatment of the mentally ill by creating mental institutions akin to resort hotels with sprawling grounds. The huge buildings have been disappearing across the country as the approach to treating mental illness has evolved and communities find themselves hard-pressed to reuse the mammoth facilities.

Now vacant, the former Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center has been used as a backdrop for several horror movies. City officials are poised to begin planning its demolition unless a viable plan emerges in the next few months. A $7 million state grant earmarked to tear down or help fix up the building expires at the end of 2014.

"The early treatment was fresh air and sunshine, warm milk and rest, so the Kirkbride buildings were built with that setback. Every patient room has a window," said Maxine Schmidt, a 78-year-old retired church secretary who has led more than 5,500 people through the building on historic tours since 2005.

"It's an architectural masterpiece," she said.

The push to save the Kirkbride began with Schmidt, who has collected more than 4,000 signatures on petitions. The hospital building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built between 1888 and 1907. The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota now considers it one of the most endangered historic places in the state.

Ethan McElroy, an amateur historian who tracks Kirkbrides around the country, said the Fergus Falls facility is unique because of its curved shape. The facility represents the type of bigger, more ornate Kirkbrides built toward the end of the 1800s.

"It's a tragedy anytime one of these huge, beautiful old buildings is destroyed," McElroy said. "Each one is unique and an amazing piece of handcrafted, 19th-century architecture."

The Fergus Falls hospital was designed by architect Warren B. Dunnell. It's anchored in the middle by a sandstone castle-like structure that served as hospital administrators' headquarters. White patient wings with blue peaked roofs spread out on either side.

City officials have been wrestling with what to do with the property for some time.

"The problem that exists with the building is its size," said City Councilman Eric Shelstad. "The main Kirkbride structure itself is in excess of 600,000 square feet. It's a big building. In a town of 13,000 people, it's not easy to find a use for a building of that size."

Shelstad said the council is likely to start seeking demolition bids in September unless a task force comes up with a redevelopment plan. The City Council rejected a developer's proposal to turn the building into residences, shops and restaurants because of concerns about the project's financing.

Shelstad said the preservationists are passionate, but he questioned how much the building's fate matters to most of his constituents.

"I've got to look out for the betterment of the citizens of Fergus Falls for today and going forward," he said.

Jean Roen, a member of Friends of the Kirkbride, said she hopes the group hug will drive home the importance of saving the building. She said more than 800 people took short tours of the building when a music festival was held on the grounds earlier this summer.

"It was built to last 400 years, and we've only gotten 100 down," Roen said.