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Fergus Falls tries to save a landmark
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The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center is one of the few remaining complete examples of a Kirkbride-designed psychiatric hospital. (MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)
The city of Fergus Falls is trying to save a well known local landmark. When it was built in the 1890s, the Fergus Falls state hospital was considered a model of mental health treatment. Most of the residents are gone now, and the state has declared the site surplus property. If no developers are interested in the sprawling complex, the historic site might fall under the wrecking ball.

Fergus Falls, Minn. — The old state hospital looks a bit like a castle, sitting atop a hill on the north side of Fergus Falls. Its eight-story brick tower is capped by a red tile roof. Two wings of patient rooms run east and west from the tower. The main building is about 1,600 feet long.

Known as a Kirkbride hospital, the Fergus Falls facility was designed by psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride, who revolutionized the design of facilities for treating the mentally ill. The buildings were long and narrow, so every room had windows, a marked departure from the prison-like asylums commonly used in the 1800s. The Fergus Falls hospital is one of the most complete Kirkbride buildings still standing in the U.S.

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Image Thomas Kirkbride

In the 1930s, about 2,000 mentally ill people were patients in Fergus Falls, and the hospital employed hundreds of local people. Now there are only a few dozen patients, and they will be moved to community care facilities.

The state spends about $1 million a year to keep the treatment center in Fergus Falls open. It's a huge place, with nearly 800,000 square feet of building space. That's about the same as the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.

What do you do with a building that size in a town of 13,000 people?

"One of the figures that's thrown around is that if you moved the entire business community from downtown Fergus Falls into the Kirkbride building, there would be room to spare," says Kent Mattson, a Fergus Falls attorney hired by the city to find a new use for the state hospital.

Any redevelopment will likely cost tens of millions of dollars. A state official says the selling price for the site is negotiable, and will depend on the kind of development that's proposed. The state estimates the value of the center not as an asset, but rather as a debt of $800,000, which is the estimated cost of cleaning up asbestos and lead paint contamination.

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Image A Kirkbride floor plan

The treatment center and surrounding 165 acres of land are designated a Job Opportunity Building Zone, or JOBZ, site by the state, giving developers access to some additional financial incentives.

But the size of the project is daunting, as Kent Mattson found out when he took interested developers on a tour.

"The size of the property led some developers to say, 'Wow, what would you ever do with this in a community like this? It's just too big.' I heard other developers say 'Wow, the size of this makes it a great opportunity for a multitude of reuses.' So it depends on your perspective," says Mattson.

There's been talk about turning the treatment center into a resort, a retirement complex, or a retraining center for veterans.

Fergus Falls has an economic stake in the outcome. The city operates a garbage incinerator that produces steam. Right now, the regional treatment center buys most of that steam to heat state-owned buildings. So the city could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue if there are no feasible proposals to redevelop the site, and the buildings are demolished.

If you moved the entire business community from downtown Fergus Falls into the Kirkbride building, there would be room to spare.
- Kent Mattson

That's an outcome the Ottertail County Historical Society hopes to avoid.

"What we've tried to do is slow the process down. For awhile it seemed like we were on a collision course with the wrecking ball," says the group's executive director Chris Schulke.

The Kirkbride building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and Schulke says it represents an important piece of state and national history.

He has a hard time imagining the sprawling complex falling under the wrecking ball.

"You realize the vast significance of this structure -- and how beautiful it is and how imposing it is -- and how tearing it down for use as a vacant lot, or for a new building, would just be tearing away a fabric of our history that we just can't afford to lose," says Schulke.

A consultant's report expected next month will lay out the cost of redevelopment options, the cost of mothballing the facility and the cost of demolition. The fate of the historic facility will likely be decided by the end of the year.

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