Well, technically moonlight... but a with stars nonetheless! The orange glow from the left and in the rear of the building are exterior lights on associated--former State Hospital--buildings. All other light is from the full moon that evening.

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.

Nurse, 1900, Photograph Collection, MNHS.org

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.”

Glowing observation windows--and someone forgot to lock a patient's door...

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.

1900s FFSH Nursing Students (Cindy Swanson)

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.

In the ward for the criminally insane, this door was the most-worn.

Watching the comings and goings of doctors, nurses and new patients was a mainstay of asylum routine; one can find it easy to imagine pale faces pressed against the block glass windows, staring out at the world moving past them.

Connecting the Administration building's tower and top floors is this beautiful cast iron staircase.

Admin, 1928, Photograph Collection, MNHS.org

Admin, 2007.

Photo Comparison: Men’s Ward

Full Ward, 1900. Compare below. (Photograph Collection, MNHS.org)

Empty Ward, 2006. Compare above.

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.

We mark our world in unexpected ways.

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.

In this section of the Men's Ward, sealed by brick from lower floors, the room doors had messages painted in their inside--some motivational, some not.

This very ornamental stair is cast iron and used to connect all floors of the Administration building.


The Shots

References »

  • (1895). Executive documents, vol. iii Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=k4pKAAAAMAAJ
  • (1898). Minneapolis homeopathic magazine, 7, Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=KK1XAAAAMAAJ
  • (1908). American Journal of Psychiatry, 64. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=eRFQAAAAIAAJ
  • Fergus falls fire. (2009, June 16). Retrieved from http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com/blog/fergus-falls-fire
  • Ffrtc reuse study . (2002). Fergus Falls: Minnesota Consultation Team and Thomas R. Zahn and Associates.
  • Gardner, D. (2004). Minnesota treasures: stories behind the state's historic places [pp.160-4]. (Google Books).
  • Minnesota: a state guide. (1938). [p.380]. (Google Books), Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=-h81ZE9ABuMC
  • MN Bureau of Labor, (1904). Biennial report of the bureau of labor of the state of minnesota, vol. ii MN Bureau of Labor. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=mxsoAAAAYAAJ
  • Rtc development to move forward chinese school nixed (2010, July 9). [Online Forum Comment]. Retrieved from http://fergusforum.com/2010/07/09/rtc-development-to-move-forward-chinese-school-nixed/
  • The legislative manual of the state of minnesota. (1907). [p.243]. (Google Books), Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=ssMGAQAA
    • The Docs

      Postcard, 1914, Photograph Collection, MNHS.org Nurse, 1900, Photograph Collection, MNHS.org Full Ward, 1900, Photograph Collection, MNHS.org First West Center Dorm, 1923, Photograph Collection, MNHS.org 1900s Nursing Students (Cindy Swanson) Admin, 1928, Photograph Collection, MNHS.org
    • Bob Nickerson

      Destroy all remnants of our past folly so we can ‘pretend’ we are now a better, more humane society… Bullpucky! Let’s fly our American flag PERMANENTLY to celebrate our ‘better’ society… Keep Kirkbride standing as an example of the superb craftsmanship of a bygone era never to be seen again.

    • Sharon Voeller

      My great aunt Mary E Kennel, was in Fergus Falls Hospital in the 1930-1942. She died July 1942. Is there a way to get a copy of her marker as she is buried there? sharon

    • Reb

      I hope this isnt torn down, we need to remember these people and times. They shouldnt be forgotten.

    • mariealline

      I’ve been to this hospital to visit patients many times. I did not know it had closed completely. When I was there visiting, they had everything from the criminally insane to the severely depressed there. To me it was a very depressing place and the tunnels were unsafe and scary. I say, take the place down. Use the land for a nice park or something.

    • Greta

      I live about 45 minutes from Gary SD where there used to be a blind school. The building had been locked up for many years. It is now Buffalo Ridge a beautiful hotel, wedding venue, and restaurant. They grounds have been made into a campground also. I really would hope that someone would be able to invest into this building and save it. I also had an uncle that had “down syndrome” that was locked up at the hospital, and I can remember going to visit with him and taking him down to the lake to feed the geese. Please stop destroying the beautiful buildings, you can never replace the wonderful workmanship from those old buildings.

    • Lil

      I have memories of classmates and adults alike stating this place was a place for freak shows and crazy people. I remember going to visit an immediate family member who was a patient there who was institutionalized there for years. People laughed and pointed at my family member when they walked off their” campus” to get food from local restaurants yelling” go back to your crazy ward!” Some even threw garbage at us. My family member was told to “shut up” and ” go back to your hole” in my presence. Police officers would stop me as I was walking up to the building to visit my family member and ask what I was doing at the ” Nut hut” and laugh as they were driving away.I don’t care if they take a flame thrower to that place

    • Linda

      Just a thought for bring business to town and restoring the building…it could be a place for paranormal/ghost tours etc. People are intrigued by the unknown (look at the tv shows: Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventurers, etc. I know you are probably shaking your head at this. It has a rich history, it experienced many traumas, and people did die there. People would rent hotel rooms and visit/tour the facilities. Maybe even overnights at the facility(you would need to check liability etc). Anyway it is just a thought to help preserve it and create a business and possible prosperity for the town. It is a very awe inspiring building.

    • Joel Anderson

      My Grand Father, Grand Mother and their children lived in Fergus Falls until the summer of 1919. That was the summer of the great tornadoes that just about wiped out the town. My father (17 yrs old) was working at the Hospital that day. This saved his life because the storm missed the Hospital. However his Mother, Father and one sister were killed and another sister injured. His Father had been a Tailor at the hospital for years. I never met my Grand Father or Grand Mother, but Fergus Falls and the old Hospital have a very special place in my heart and I would hate to see it destroyed . . . . thanks for listening, Joel A

    • Darlene

      Our Great Grandmother was first at St. Peter and later here due to postpartum depression after each childbirth. At that time, there was no treatment for that type of disorder. Her final years were at Fergus Falls Hosp. When she became calm, she begged to go home, but in the end she contacted tubercolosis and could not be released. She is buried on the grounds. After many years, her burial linformation was found and a stone placed on her grave.

    • Blaka68

      I think it should definitely not be torn down,I visited here and loved it.Plus if they tear it down,there gonna turn it into resterants and a hotel.CREEPY

      • Dan Glass

        In the southern USA there are a number of hotels which claim to be haunted, in order to bring in more business. Ghost shows make them all the more popular. I call it lazy marketing :-)

    • kelsey wade

      I got sent to Fergus Falls. They have a new building, it’s only 5 years old. It is big and there is a fence around it and they only let you outside a couple times a day to smoke. There are cameras everywhere and they keep you as long as they like. I was there from Nov 20th 2013 till Feb 18th 2014. Not a good time. Before I got sent to the locked unit at Fergus Falls I went to Wilmar treatment and also St Josephs hospital.

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    • cassie

      It should stay! They don’t tear down places like the glensheen mansion or the white house or Ne other building like this one..this place is cool n can b used for a lot of educational purposes then jus another place or thing u gotta look up in a book or see 10 pictures of the place..it means more to the town then to jus b destroyed.

    • kb1989

      This building needs to remain standing! It’s to my understanding that when it was built so the bricks were laid by hand. They don’t have many structures like this anymore!

    • Joy Donken

      Working there a short time was an interesting time in my life. I also worked for the LSS Children’s Home. With the both closed down, I believe they have done the society a disservice. Those who need help with the mental problems have no where to go, but to wonder the streets, or stay at a families place, harming and frightening them. We need more DR.’s

    • Sophie

      I would like to see it stand its such an amazing building. Unfortunally we as a communitee and city have no say in the matter, just the big guys with the money, and they will win, they always do.

    • Michelle Seggermann

      i think they should make it into a museum….there’s alot of history there.

      • Laurie Karels Jacobsen

        Or a bed and breakfast/hotel type thing. Much to beautiful of a building to tear down!!

    • Dottie

      I loved this article!!!! I sure hope the hospital stays standing, it would be an awful shame if it was destroyed. Its a part of history and so interesting to learn about and see. My grandmother did her nursing clinicals at this hospital and stayed in the nurses cottage. I think the building it beautiful, id love to live in the doctors apartment.

    • Michelle

      I have a picture of my great grandmother from the early 1900′swith the same uniform I have found in various pictures of the nurses from here. Is there any way to find out more information about her, when she studied here, etc??? Thank you

      • danglass


        Your best bet is to check with the Minnesota Historical Society, as I think they took possession of all the nursing school records in the 1980s. I would love to see your picture if you don’t mind me seeing. Email me at glassworksenator (at) email (dot) com if you have a digital copy. Thanks!

        • michelle

          Hi, tried to email you but it got sent back. My email address is michelleraekreis@yahoo.es, if you would like to send me something & I can reply & send you the picture. I am terrible at computers & am not sure why what I sent came back?

    • Susan

      I have an ancestor who voluntarily entered the hospital in 1928 and only later in 1931 was he officially “committed” What was the implication of a commitment? Was it financial? I know his son paid $5 per month when he was a voluntary? Any help would be great!

      • Gary

        My maternal grandmother was committed there in about 1921 or 22 when her husband died and my mother was 14. She died there in 1930 at age 53. Her youngest son was living there when I met him in 1966and was living there when he died. I think when they were committed they became a ward of the state. I would like to know when or if commitment records are public.

        • Nancy

          Gary, Commitment records can be looked up at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. I have looked up many for others, very interesting to learn about the lives of the patients. My great grandmother and my grandfather both died there.

        • lisathemartian

          Would you be willing to help me locate the records of my great grand Aunt who was in fergus falls between 1930′s – 1940′s?

        • Dan Glass

          Sorry, Lisa, I have no access to the records. Most of them are at the Historical Center in St. Paul, operated by the state Historical Society. I recommend contacting them.

      • kelsey wade

        I’m on a civil commitment. I am a beautiful 20 year old with dreams and a heart. They locked me up a year and a half ago and committed me for being chemically dependent. . A harm to myself or others.. it’s been so hard for me. I had my 20th birthday locked up at Fergus Falls. . Please people. . Don’t ever send your family away like me.

        • Ted

          Hope your doing Well?

        • Ted

          Hope your doing Well?

        • Ted

          There is Probally a reason why they sent you to treatment, just saying!! They sent you there to get help and dont hurt others and yourself!!!!!!!!!

    • Hunger games freak

      They sould really keep it standing I looked at this for a social project and it’s so cool

    • Nancy E.

      I grew up in Fergus and the structure has always been an icon — much to valuable to destroy.

    • Michelle

      It has to be on the national registered places of historical sites in MN and in the USA

    • anne

      I think they should keep this building standing. I have an ancestor who was here and when I was doing genealogy it was nice to be able to pull this up and actually see pictures of where she was–makes things so real. They should keep the history.
      Thank you

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    • http://randommiranda.blogspot.com/ Katniss Daywalker

      Wow. Great article. I live in Fergus, and really hope that the city won’t tear it down. It’s a great spot for picture taking and an important part of the town’s history.

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