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'Built like a rock': Other cities envy condition of Fergus facility

In the late 1800s, providing the mentally ill with sunshine and fresh air instead of chains and confinement was a new idea. That's the inspiration under which the Fergus Falls State Hospital Complex was constructed. Minneapolis architect Warren D...

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In the late 1800s, providing the mentally ill with sunshine and fresh air instead of chains and confinement was a new idea.

That's the inspiration under which the Fergus Falls State Hospital Complex was constructed.

Minneapolis architect Warren Dunnell designed the facility to the specifications of Thomas Kirkbride, one of the prominent authorities in mental health care during the late 1800s.

The main 500,000-square-foot structure cost about $1 million to build -- about $500,000 less than the state now spends annually on utilities and maintenance -- and was constructed over a 19-year period.

The facility is 1,500 feet in length and built with elements of Roman Renaissance and Gothic influence.

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"These hospitals were, in fact, very efficient at treating patients," said Susan Roth, a national register historian with the Minnesota Historical Society.

Kirkbride, according to the Web site KirkbrideBuildings.com, was a founding member of what is now the American Psychiatric Association. He promoted a standardized method of hospital construction and mental health treatment and wanted to improve conditions for the mentally ill, prompting his buildings to be described as "palace-like asylums.''

"Kirkbride had served in a number of different institutions, and saw what he didn't like," said Fergus Fall City Planner Gordon Hydukovich. "He thought he could do a better job designing a facility."

Kirkbride structures are constructed in long, narrow semi-circles, and have hundreds of windows for light.

The main structure was built to hold 1,000 patients. Buildings were added over the years and the campus eventually grew to 860,000 square feet in building space.

"It's built like a rock," said Doug Seiler, a regional administrator for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Building footings are 16 feet wide, and fireproof materials were used in construction.

The center section of the facility, which is now called the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, is higher than the wings and housed administration and lodging for the superintendent and staff.

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Kirkbride structures are built to face the prevailing wind for easy access to fresh air.

"He built it so the building was constantly breathing and refreshing the old air," Hydukovich said.

The Fergus Falls facility is one of the most intact Kirkbride structures in the country. It was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1986.

"This building is obviously worthy of preservation," Roth said. "Both architecturally and for its historical contributions.

"This is a building if demolished, it will never be rebuilt in any way, shape or form. Are we satisfied commemorating this building with a plaque or memorial given the years of service to its patients and employees?"

Other Kirkbrides

Ray Minervini of the Minervini Group in Traverse City, Mich., is rehabilitating a Kirkbride hospital in his city. He toured the Fergus Falls hospital last year.

"Tearing that building down would be a sin," he said. "That building is in phenomenal condition. If it was here, it would be an absolute no-brainer to rehabilitate."

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The Traverse City State Hospital was closed in 1989, Minervini said.

The facility was in a "serious state of decay" by the time Minervini and others began planning alternative uses for the structure about three years ago.

His vision is to create "a little village within the building."

The first floor would contain restaurants, cafes and shops, the second floor, businesses, and the third and fourth floors, apartments and condominiums.

Minervini admitted Fergus Falls has different marketing challenges than Traverse City -- a tourism hotspot in Michigan. But he didn't think finding an alternative use for the structure would be impossible.

"You have two choices when you have an old building," he said. "You can find uses to fit the building, or modify the building to fit the uses. Fergus Falls has a lot going for it."

Legislative action is still needed to close the Fergus Falls facility, but that could come as soon as 2005.

That gives the state and city about 18 months to find a new use for the facility, Roth said.

"These days, people are incredibly perceptive and smart," she said. "I don't think we should immediately talk about it being a shame if we lose it. Those who care for this building should be talking about ways to save it."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Baird at (701) 241-5535

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