Historic MN insane asylum spared from wrecking ball

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - The world is made up of realists and dreamers. Score one for the dreamers who never gave up on the Kirkbride.

From the air it looks like a castle: built in the late 1800s, sitting atop a hill, a third of a mile long and 500,000 thousand square feet in size. It was, in its prime, Minnesota's grandest insane asylum.

"I couldn't imagine demolition, I just could not imagine," says Maxine Schmidt, who along with her husband Gene, has given tours of the Kirkbride to thousands of people.

One of dozens of Kirkbrides built across the country, the ornate structures were named for Thomas Kirkbride, a Philidelphia physician who championed the movement of the mentally ill from dark basements and jail cells to sun-lit and architecturally grand asylums.

Minnesota's Kirkbride took onits first patients in 1890. By the 1930s more than 2000 mentally ill Minnesotans lived at the state-run institution.

But decades later,theera of large asylums was over. The last of the Kirkbride's psychiatric patients left the facility in 2006. The state turned the Kirkbrideover to the city of Fergus Falls, with several million dollars in funds that could be used for redevelopment or demolition.

As the years passed, the latter option appeared more and more likely.

"I just felt probably the inevitable was, probably, we were going to have to tear the facility down," said Mark Sievert, city administrator for Fergus Falls.

Sievert says the city tried to find a buyer for the property, but he, like others, eventually concluded the Kirkbride was too old and too large to be of use to anyone in a city of 14,000 people.

"'When are you going to tear that damn thing down?'" Sievert recalls people asking as he encountered them around town.

But the realists ran head first into the dreamers.

"We were just people with passion," says Laurie Mullen, who joined the Schmidts in founding "Friends of the Kirkbride," a citizens group opposed to the demolition.

In addition to sponsoring tours, the "friends" gathered signatures, held community events and turned out for city council meetings.

Sievert admits to being frustrated with the "friends" at times. He favoredsaving the Kirkbride's central administration building and tower. The Friends dug in their heels, insisting the entire Kirkbride be preserved.

"Up until the last six to nine months, we just didn't have anything that I feel was remotely realistic," said Sievert.

That suddenly changed when the city hired an outside broker to take one more stab at finding a buyer for the Kirkbride. In June, a Georgia based developer, Historic Properties,signed a letter of intent with the city. Plans call for a $41.4 million dollar renovation, converting the former asylum into a 120 room hotel, with a spa,several restaurants and 60 apartments.

"You know, (if) I'm wrong, I'm wrong," laughed Sievert, while reminding a visitor a final agreement has yet to be signed. The city administrator says it's likely the Kirkbride would already be demolished, if not for the pushback of opponents.

But Sievert saysthe city council deserves credit too, for taking on the facility in the first place as the state started talking about tearing it down.

Councilman Ben Schierer says the contributions of the "friends" must be acknowledged. "I think it's just a great example of what a group of citizens that are committed to a cause can do."

Note: The Otter Tail County Historical Society has published a book, "The State Welcomes You: Minnesota's Third State Hospital, Fergus Falls" It's available for purchase by clicking here. The historical society hasalso has produced an exhibit on the history of the Kirkbride. The exhibit will remain on display at the society's Fergus Falls museumthrough the end of this year.


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