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Main Tower of the Kirkbride Complex, Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center

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Funds for the demolition of the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center (RTC) have been included in Governor Tim Pawlenty's bonding bill, at the request of the Department of Human Services.  Click here for more info (PDF file).  Action must be taken now to avoid losing this historic landmark!  See the "What Can I Do?" section below for info on how you can help make your voice heard.

Following are two recent articles from the Fergus Falls Daily Journal regarding the potential reuse of the RTC.  Both articles are reprinted with permission from the Fergus Falls Daily Journal.

Three file RTC intent

Fergus Falls, Minnesota
Monday, December 22, 2003 
By Lucien Holmes

The 100-year-old Kirkbride tower is the centerpiece of a complex of buildings on the northern end of Union Street. Although it is majestic and imposing, nobody seems to know what to do with it.

The state, which owns it, doesn't want it, and the Department of Human Services, which operates it, can't afford it, so Fergus Falls has turned to attorney Kent Mattson.

Mattson's office is accepting requests for proposals until Feb. 13, 2004 and asking developers who intend to submit a proposal to first send a letter of intent.

That deadline passed on Thursday, and to date Mattson's office has received three letters of intent; however, proposals will still be accepted without a letter of intent.

"The important thing is that no decision has been made," said Mattson.

One of the problems associated with the future of the Kirkbride tower and surrounding buildings is that there are two separate issues.

"It's important to differentiate between the services and the building. The building is our focus," said Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) member Wayne Hurley.

"We don't want to lose the jobs associated with the occupants of the building. That's a vital part of the local economy," he said,

The buildings currently are in limited use. A few SPMI (Serious and Persistent Mental Illness) patients are still housed at the facility. The District #544 Area Learning Center, and some Otter Tail County services are also located on the grounds.

There are concerns over the cost of maintaining the complex. Some estimates approach $1,000,000 a year for heat, grounds keeping and security. But the State of Minnesota, who declared the RTC "surplus property," must develop a master plan for reuse, according to Mattson.

"That might be terms of acquisition from a previous developer, maintenance in hopes of future development, transferrance to the city, or demolition," said Mattson.

The Department of Administration, Otter Tail County, local legislators, and representatives of the City of Fergus Falls and the RTC -- the Reuse Taskforce -- have been working to find a solution since 2002.

The task force consultant hired recommended a hotel and golf course. Other informal suggestions have included a college, a corporate headquarters, a shelter, or apartments.

Despite these exciting possibilities for reuse, the most practical may be retail space. According to Hydukovich, there is more square footage in the RTC than in all the shops on Lincoln Avenue.

It was also recently designated as a tax-free zone under the state's new JOBZ initiative. City Planner Gordon Hydukovich said that means operators of new businesses there will not pay property tax, state income tax, sales tax or corporate tax. Even federal taxes are eased by a 20% tax credit and a "facade easement," which would be two-thirds of a mile for the RTC

The structural integrity of the complex should also draw interest.

"Realistically, there might be two small buildings you'd have to tear down [here]...But the majority of the buildings -- including the tower -- are in good shape," Hydukovich said.

No matter what the future scenario, officials are concerned about the time needed for a project of this magnitude.

"Beginning now, a developer has only twelve years to take advantage of this. The clock is ticking," he said.

The clock is also ticking for organizations like the HPC. The Department of Human Services requested $4,500,000 for demolition of "old, non-functional buildings" in its 2004 preliminary capital budget request.

Mattson said before anything happens there will be plenty of opportunity for local input.
 

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Landmark has vital link with history
(Editor's note: this is the second in a two-part series on the state of the RTC.)

Fergus Falls, Minnesota
Monday, December 22, 2003 

By Lucien Holmes

The Regional Treatment Center is an imposing complex, sitting on about 70 acres of land, with buildings that occupy nearly 900,000 square feet. But the Fergus Falls landmark, so linked to the city's past, faces an uncertain future. The state has declared it surplus property, and the city is looking for proposals from developers.

Fergus Falls Heritage Preservation Commission member Wayne Hurley said those buildings are important to the commission.

"Being on the National Register of Historic Places doesn't guarantee anything," Hurley said. "What gets done to the property is up to the owner."

"Fergus Falls fought so hard to get it in the 1880s. There were two state hospitals before the Kirkbride, and when ours was built, it was state of the art," said Hurley.

Indeed, it was one of the last ever built by architect Thomas Kirkbride and reformer Dorothy Dix. They collaborated on building many of these hospitals, whose long windows and surrounding fields were intended to promote healing in the mentally ill.

City Planner Gordon Hydukovich said the building was much more than a mental institution. Residents included tuberculosis patients, the chemically dependent, and even women suffering from menopause.

"It was once a self-sufficient community: they farmed and cooked and kept the grounds," said Hydukovich.

Communities in New York, Massachusetts, and Michigan have rallied to save their hospitals when the state no longer found them viable, Hurley said.

"There are people who would say you need to fight just as hard to keep it viable, that you need to look at it as an asset, not a problem," said Hurley.

Hydukovich is one of those people.

"Landmarks are important. They give us a sense of identity," he said.

He points to a developer working with a Kirkbride structure in Traverse City, Mich. That developer has begun a "mixed-use" project.

Like the Michigan property, the Fergus Falls RTC is tentatively zoned for a mix of industry, commercial, and residential use. The residential zones are on the edges and act as a buffer from the tower complex in the middle and the industry to the northwest.

As Hydukovich said, this should preserve neighborhoods and be attractive to potential developers, even though the site is "geographically further out [than Traverse City] -- not on the edge of Battle Lake, not next to the Cities in Anoka."

The commission makes recommendations to the city on preservation of significant buildings or land. Attorney Kent Mattson, who has been hired by the city to deal with proposals from developers, said that the city is in the middle of a long process. He said there will be plenty of opportunity for local input.

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Overview

The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center (RTC) is a unique landmark in the City of Fergus Falls.  It served for many years as a state hospital for the insane, at one time housing upwards of 2,000 patients.  As times have changed, the RTC has seen its patient numbers dwindle as patients are moved into smaller facilites.  The State of Minnesota has declared the RTC campus surplus property.  Currently the City of Fergus Falls is working with the state to take over the RTC campus.  A reuse study has been completed, but many feel that the recommendations of the study would be difficult - not to mention very costly - to implement.

Several organizations have offices in buildings on the campus, such as Fergus Falls School District #544 (district offices and the Area Learning Center), The Western Area City/County Co-Operative, and the West Central Minnesota Housing Partnership.  However, as noted, the State of Minnesota is in the process of abandoning the main Kirkbride building on campus.

A recent, positive development is that Otter Tail County has purchased and renovated one of the larger buildings on the RTC campus for use as a county administration center.

The most unique feature on the RTC campus is undoubtedly the Kirkbride-style main building.  The Kirkbride building was designed based on a model developed by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, which featured curving or staggered wings with natural light and windows in all patient rooms.  In addition, the beautifully landscaped grounds of the campus were used for outdoor recreation.

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History

The history that follows was provided by Chris Schulke, Executive Director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society, and from the book Building from the Past by James Gray & Marjorie Barton, published by the Fergus Falls Heritage Preservation Commission:

The main building of the Fergus Falls State Hospital is the only remaining example of Kirkbride architecture in Minnesota.  The building was designed as a single unit and followed the architectural concepts of Dr. Thomas S. Kirkbride, a 19th century Pennsylvania physician and pioneer in the mental health field.  Warren B. Dunnell, a Minneapolis architect, translated Kirkbride's ideas into a building plan.

Kirkbride's concepts included narrow widths in buildings so that every room had outside windows, and construction was to be of fireproof materials.  He recommended single rooms and small wards for patients and believed there should be a minimum of 100 acres of grounds for farming, gardening, exercise and privacy.

Kirkbride designed the center section of his buildings to be higher than the wings.  The center was to serve as the administrative area of the facility and included kitchens, offices, a reception area, visiting rooms, a lecture room, chapel and staff apartments.

Construction began in 1888 with the west detached ward, the main complex was completed in 1899, with the center section finished in 1906.  Constructed with elements of Roman Renaissance and Gothic influence, it is built in the shape of a semi-circle, 1500 feet in length.  Its cream colored brick was manufactured in nearby Pelican Rapids.  The eight-story tower, described as somewhat Beaux Arts Classical, was never intended for use, but was the culmination of an architectural statement and was to serve as a landmark within the city.

From 1891 to 1969, the Fergus Falls State Hospital was a self contained community. It consisted of a 637 acre farm which included orchards, pasture, dairy and horse barns, 35 acres of gardens and 650 tillable acres.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, the building is being vacated by the State of Minnesota. The community of Fergus Falls now faces the task of either finding alternate uses for the building or allow it to face the wrecking ball.

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Links and Info

See the links below for more information about the Fergus Falls RTC and Kirkbride buildings. . .

  • The Village at Grand Traverse Commons
    • Excellent example of a Kirkbride complex that is being renovated for re-use in Traverse City, Michigan (a similar-sized community to Fergus Falls).  It CAN be done!!!

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What Can I Do?

If you are concerned about the fate of the Fergus Falls RTC, there are several things you can do to help and make your voice heard.  Write a letter, send an email or call the elected officials listed below to let them know that you oppose the demolition of the RTC, and that you support finding a reuse for this unique, historic landmark that has helped shape the community of Fergus Falls.

Unless there is significant public effort to request more time to find a reuse for the RTC, funds will be there for the wrecking ball to move in this July.

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