Fergus Falls State Hospital looks like a lens from the sky… it’s an appropriate form for a third-of-a-mile-long building constructed to focus the powers of 19th century medicine and the state, The State of Minnesota.
At ground level I pressed my nose against the car’s passenger-side window; I was a little boy mesmerized by the castle that rose from the hill, behind the trees. Reflections of red towers, white-arched wings and a thousand glittering windows traced their ghosts across the side of the car. Like a castle this was a place of power, but unlike its European cousins,this was a monument to, and an instrument of, a government for and by the people.
But especially for, if you know what I mean.
The convex architecture with an ornate and celebrated exterior harnessed the power of psychological, bureaucratic and physical structures for one purpose: to change people.
Days Spent Staring Through Curtains
This imposing, impressive and expressive building was not some benevolently feudal vestige of battle, like the castles the hospital recalls; the shiny and well-worn hallways reflect a different sort of war, one where the attacker was often unclear.
Wars of the mind, waged between walls of this asylum.
“Insane asylums are a cultural cliché,” I wish I could say, “another invention of Hollywood,” but this is not so. Behind the block glass (barred windows would be too obvious) and ornate carvings (a homely prison) are thousands of memories carved into hospital in so many ways. From the tiny hexagonal tiles lining the dusty isolation rooms to the curtains hanging from the ward ceilings, to say nothing of the dark and stuffy tunnels below…
…this was a place where people were sent and kept until logic waxed or life waned.
It’s the sort of place that feels like home, designed to be, in a way, comforting forever. Count and name those little tiles, or lay on your back and watch the curtains flutter, as God whispered in your ear: “Just another day.”
Animals in the Pen
I’m not sure which was noisier, daytime or nighttime, but I know the days were more busy, especially since the farm was being tended; for most of the life of the hospital it was almost completely self-sufficient. Patients, depending on the severity of their conditions, tended to the roughly 500 acres of farmland and livestock which included hundreds of cattle, a mess of hogs and a handful of horses.
Indeed, fresh air and ample sunlight was the chief prescription then, a feature architecturally integrated by Thomas Kirkbride, the psychologist who inspired the design of this hospital. Today such buildings are called those of “The Kirkbride Plan“, “Kirkbrides” to enthusiasts, and are often the focus of preservation efforts. It’s a kind of building that would not be erected today, especially by a state government, to say the least.
Fergus, or “Minnesota’s Third Hospital for the Insane,” as it was originally known, broke ground in 1888 in the shape of the Kirkbride-informed designs of Warren B. Dunnell. Its purpose was to house all those whose psychological conditions excluded them from interacting with the general population, which is a tragically-wide net that snatched many from what could have been nearly-normal lives.
However, Minnesota’s other two asylums (‘Minnesota Hospital for the Insane’ in St. Peter and Rochester’s ‘Asylum for Inebriates’) were bursting with overpopulation, and medicine of the day dictated that the best solution was to sentence individuals (often literally) to massive inpatient mental treatment facilities.
On July 29th, 1890 the first two men were sentenced to the asylum, joined the next day by eighty transfers from St. Peter.
Photo Comparison: Men’s Ward
Drunks and Diseased: A Diorama of Diagnoses
In the early days, common reasons for admission were: overwork, fright, loneliness, epilepsy, and typhoid fever. In those days, one had to be male and sentenced to stay at the hospital. It wasn’t until 1893 when the State Hospital accepted 125 women (also transferred from St. Peter), who were confined to their own section of the institution designed for them. In 1910, laws were changed to allow patients to voluntarily admit themselves.
When the work wound down, Fergus Falls State Hospital covered a giant campus with 22 wards, a psychopathic unit, a detention hospital, a contagious diseases hospital, dual tuberculosis clinics and even a special hospital for convalescents.
Pie was served weekly.
Population of the hospital fluctuated, but rarely trended downward; in 1894, 532 patients, in 1904 1,500 patients, in the 1920s, 1,700, and in 1937, 2,000 patients were behind the block glass.
In the northeast corner of the farthest field there’s a white cross and American flag, marking the asylum cemetery. Around that meek marker are more than 3,000 remains, only about thirty of which are marked today. Rather, visitors can tell where the rows are by the subtle divetts in the dirt, where collapsed coffins shape the flat farmland into tiny hills. The state still pays for the plot’s upkeep.
A Gradual Downsizing, then Aloneness
By the 1970s, though, the original philosophy of warehousing, sunshine and fresh air had long faded, like the canary-yellow paint on the old ward walls. Now, instead of being shut into tiny rooms, troubled minds were given psychotherapeutic drugs and mainstreamed into smaller clinics. The State Hospital’s usefulness was fading, as reflected by the 1985 name change to Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center.
Under this moniker, the building served only about 100 patients, some psychotic, but most were simply chemically-dependent inpatients. As a drug rehab, much of the 900,000 square feet went unused. In 2008 the last patients left the arching wards and heavy wooden doors for more humble abodes at the same time the State of Minnesota appropriated more than $7,000,000 to demolish the aging hospital. Why wouldn’t they want to forget?
Modern proposals to repurpose the complex are failing to save Fergus Falls State Hospital while a lightning strike (and resulting fire) has failed to destroy it. So this Kirkbride rests on the brink, to be saved for the next generation as an architectural treasure and public resource or razed as a park and empty lot. Another Kirkbride, Dixmont State Hospital, was demolished in the early 2000s, and Walmart had plans to build on its footprint for some time–maybe that’s what Fergus Falls wants instead of this treasure.
I watch and wait, as do the memories lining the inside of every window in Fergus Falls State Hospital, where my great grandmother spent years of her life.