In the late 1880's, overcrowding at Minnesota's two main psychiatric facilities prompted the state to begin looking at the construction of a third. The legislature passed a bill allocating $24,280 for the purchase of 596 acres of land, and a further $70,000 for construction of the required buildings.
The architect selected for the project was Warren Dunnel of Minneapolis who based the main building on a design by Thomas Kirkbride. The original plans only called for a capacity of 300 patients, but it was redesigned for a capacity of 1,500.
Construction began in 1888. By the following year, it became apparent that the amount of money budgeted was insufficient. That year, the state legislature allocated an addition $65,000.
The facility officially opened July 29, 1890, but construction wasn't actually completed until 1912. By then, the population had climbed to 1,650 patients, 150 more than capacity. The hospital would reach peak population in 1937 with 2,078 patients.
In 1946, coinciding with a scathing expose in the Minneapolis news, the State began to look at the conditions in its hospitals. It was found that all of the facilities suffered from overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, inedible food, over-reliance on restraints and under-staffing. Reporter Geri Hoffner, said that in some facilities, so many residents were horsed to sleep in a single bed that the only way to get out was to climb over the foot board. A subsequent report in 1947 by the Unitarian Conference Committee found similar problems indicating residents were not clothed or bathed, the food was not fit to eat and that restraints were preferred over treatment.
In 1950, the Governor appointed Dr. Ralph Rossen as Commissioner of Mental Health and Hospitals. He was tasked with cleaning up this issue and setting things right. He believed the answer was persistent teaching and training of staff.
He set a goal that each resident should receive 5 minutes of individual attention during an 8-hour shift. This was considered unattainable as the ratio of staff to residents was 1:75 or as high as 1:100.
The same year, Geri Hoffner again looked into conditions and found that things had already improved dramatically. She noted the shared diet for both staff and residents, and the creation of a Patient Bill of Rights as key contributors to the improvements.
After a lengthy program of decentralization by the state, bringing patients to smaller facilities with better staff / patient ratios, closer to their homes, the Fergus Falls facility was closed in 2007.
Lightning struck in 2009 and started a fire in the tower of the administration building. A cap that is a replica of the original roof has been placed over top.
Currently, the city of Fergus Falls owns the building and is looking to either sell to someone with a viable redevelopment plan, or demolish the building as soon as possible.
UPDATE October 20, 2012: A story was published in the Fergus Falls Journal on October 12, 2012, that the owners of Weston State Hospital are interested in purchasing this Kirkbride. Story attached below.
UPDATE August 28, 2013: A story was published by Minnesota Public Radio indicating that the former hospital may have a buyer.
UPDATE July 22, 2015: The Fergus Falls City Council has terminated negotiations with prospective buyers for the property.
UPDATE January 17, 2022: The fight continues as the City Council waits for the February 1 deadline for new proposals. Nothing as yet.
It was 9:00 AM on what was promising to be another hot day in western Minnesota. I pulled up in front of this imposingly vast building to meet my hosts, Gene Schmidt, and his wife, Maxine. They are wonderfully warm people, and clearly passionate about their goal, to save the Kirkbride.
As they took me through the labyrinthine hallways, up stairs and down corridors, I couldn't help but be amazed. First, because the sheer, vast size of the building. Second, because of the craftsmanship and work that went into its construction which now is only pale in comparison to what it was in its original form. And finally, because of the incredibly good condition the entire building was in.
It has seen wear and tear, to be sure. And it has been visited by vandals on several occasions. Despite that, and its age, it is water tight, and ready to be reworked into something truly impressive.
The city sees only the value of redeveloping the property on which this grand old building sits. They appear fixed on demolishing it and forever removing a central point of Fergus Falls' history.