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After 18 redevelopment attempts, fate of iconic Fergus Falls Kirkbride building uncertain

The latest attempt to save part of the building came from the Fergus Falls School District, which wanted to turn part of the structure into an elementary school.

The Kirkbride Building is still standing as of May 19, 2022.jpg
The Kirkbride Building in Fergus Falls on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum
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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — From a distance, the Romanesque spires and embrasures of the old Kirkbride building inspire awe. Closer up, however, the wind moans through the 132-year-old structure. Windows are boarded up. The main entrance has been sealed by brick.

Even after a decade of debate on whether or not to demolish the former state hospital and at least 18 failed redevelopment attempts, the main tower and its wings that stretch over 11 acres still stand.

The latest attempt to save part of the building came from the Fergus Falls School District, which wanted to turn part of the structure into an elementary school.

The main tower of the Kirkbride Building with the main entrance blocked in by bricks.jpg
The main tower of the Kirkbride Building has the main entrance blocked in by bricks on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

“The idea was to utilize the main tower building as the entrance to the new school and a new school would be built directly behind the tower. Under that scenario, the school had no use for the remainder of the buildings, so they would have come down,” said Andrew Bremseth, Fergus Falls city administrator.

But the school district’s plan wasn’t feasible, Bremseth said, and the iconic structure remains a hefty bill for the city to maintain.

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Minneapolis architect Warren Dunnell designed the facility, and 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.

The Kirkbride building was one of the last psychiatric hospitals constructed under the Kirkbride model, an idea developed by physician Thomas Kirkbride that incorporated long narrow buildings covered in windows. The goal during the 1880s was to provide “moral treatment” for the mentally ill.

The hospital opened in 1890 and soon had up to 2,000 patients. As the hospital grew, so did the town of Fergus Falls.

After World War II, however, shock treatments and occupational therapy gave way to drug therapies. In 2005 the hospital, then named Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, closed.

“The city still owns the building and continues to look for and entertain redevelopment opportunities. As of now, there are no plans to remove or demolish any other parts of the building," Bremseth said. "The City Council is working on a preservation project up there, which may kick off this summer. This would be to seal up roofs, bricks, downspouts, secure other areas of the building, etc."

A teeter totter at the back of the Kirkbride Building on May 18, 2022.jpg
A seesaw at the back of the Kirkbride Building on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
C.S Hagen / The Forum

Kirkbride buildings were built across the United States and overseas, but the one in Fergus Falls is one of the last structures remaining upright, according to the Kirkbride website .

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

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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