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Maxine Schmidt, center, gives tours of the former Fergus Falls State Hospital along with her husband, Gene, far left. The couple hope new uses can be found for much of the complex, especially the tower section of what is known as the Kirkbride building, where this spiral staircase is located. The spot is a favorite of photographers, according to Maxine Schmidt, who said: "If I had a nickel for every time my picture was taken here ..." Dave Olson / The Forum

A future for the Kirkbride?

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The former Fergus Falls State Hospital has more than 500,000 square feet of space, and from the outside it looks every bit that big.

But inside, details grab attention: carved wooden filigree framing a fireplace; brass door hinges embossed with intricate rosettes; fantastical cast-iron creatures guarding the main stairs.

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Experts who have toured what is known as the Kirkbride building say it could stand for 400 years.

So far, it's been around a little more than a century, but the clock is ticking.

After years of trying to find a buyer for the sprawling complex, the city sold some campus buildings, but the main structure remains in city hands.

City officials now say they may have to start demolition or partial demolition by spring 2013 if they are to have access to about $5 million in state funds that remain available for taking down structures on the property.

Maxine Schmidt said deadlines have been extended in the past and it should be possible for the city to work with the state on modifying when the demolition funds have to be used.

Even if the wrecking ball starts swinging, current City Council members are united in stating the Kirkbride's central tower should remain standing and officials express hope other parts of the Kirkbride building will also be preserved.

In the meantime, the city has hired an international real estate broker to help find interested developers.

While the effort was given six months to bear fruit, there is a chance the city will take demolition steps sooner if progress isn't made.

The City Council will get a three-month report on that marketing effort in December.

Some quick facts about the Kirkbride

• Built in the late 1890s, the Fergus Falls State Hospital had about 2,000 patients at its peak population in the late 1930s. The patients were cared for by an estimated staff of 260.

By 1986, the facility was a regional treatment center serving about 400 clients with a staff of about 600.

The city of Fergus Falls took ownership of the property in 2007.

• The state hospital was a community unto itself with its own bakery and other services.

At one time the bakery produced 1,000 loaves of bread and 517 pies daily.

• Fergus Falls residents Maxine and Gene Schmidt have hosted tours of the former state hospital for about eight years, educating the public about the site and pushing for alternative uses.

They are part of a volunteer organization known as The Friends of the Kirkbride, a group dedicated to preserving the historic site.

The group recently hosted its 6,000th visitor to the Kirkbride. The person was from Austin, Texas.

Maxine Schmidt said tours are booked through December, but there are sometimes cancellations and spots open up. The Schmidts can be reached at (218) 736-5328.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

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