More than 120 years ago, the Fergus Falls State Hospital loomed over its titular city as a symbol of governmental care for a group of people society preferred didn’t exist. Today, the complex symbolizes what is becoming all-too-common across the country: an outdated structure of languishing usefulness and mysterious existence.
What’s left behind is now a hollow shell of crumbling plaster, overgrown brush, and dismantled rooms. But it’s far from empty. In fact, some say it’s haunted.
The paranormal organization that investigated the Forum basement also spent time at the Fergus Falls State Hospital three years ago. They investigated the facility on two different occasions, recording several EVP sessions. Some of the recordings produced sounds—knocking and whistling. But some produced voices. Saying “hi.” Answering the investigators question about whether people were with them that night with a “Yes, they are.”
And most creepily… raspy pleas of “Get me out of here.”
Scared yet? But they’re just voices… right?
Voices are the only thing left for the Kirkbride. Voices from the past, yearning to be heard. Voices of the present, fighting to save the building from imminent destruction. Voices from the future, hoping to invigorate a building currently rendered useless.
Goosebumps and Gloom
The creepiest thing about the Kirkbride is not the prospect of spirits or paranormal activity; that’s to be expected for an institution where heinous acts were carried out in the name of medicine. Psychiatric care has evolved incredibly in the last century, but not without costly human carnage.
What’s creepy is how well the complex has held up in the battle against time.
The Fergus Falls building is the most complete of all remaining Kirkbride buildings—the only thing gone is the portico on the face of the iconic administration building. Of the 16 Kirkbride buildings in the country, six have been partially or completely demolished.
Will the Fergus Falls Kirkbride be next? Or, will it be a success story like the Traverse City State Hospital in Michigan that has been transformed into one of the largest historic preservation and adaptive reuse redevelopments?
While touring the Kirkbride in Fergus Falls, it’s nearly impossible not to feel sad. That gloom—it’s called kenopsia—overtakes you as you survey the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of an abandoned place no longer bustling with people.
The tour guide acknowledges that bad things happened within its walls, but good things happened, too. The sweet old lady and her elderly husband who snake you through the hallways and stairwells recite fact after astonishing fact—most sugarcoated into a benign retelling of a building that has outlived its usefulness. They’ve been giving tours of the infamous building for 11 years, educating people from 43 states and 10 countries about the institution; they play their parts to perfection.
So do the buildings. From the overrun, imposing Tudor-style nurses dormitory to the detention and contagious disease buildings dotting the perimeter of the property, the Kirkbride brims with possibility… and sorrow for the sad decline the building has seen in the past 50 years.
Crumbling walls shed plaster tears. Gaping holes in the most opulent rooms indicate where worthy remnants have long-since been torn from the walls to fetch a few dollars at auction.
It’s a cursory look at the nearly 900,000-square-foot facility… but it’s enough.
To truly understand the mystique surrounding the Fergus Falls State Hospital, you have to know why it was built in the first place and how truly terrifying its downfall has been.
Settle in. This is a complicated history about a complex building at a dynamic time in history.
Lock Up The Lunatics
After the Civil War, state hospitals were used as “holding pens for societal dregs and outcasts where little rehabilitation took place…inebriates (drunkards and addicts), imbeciles (mentally deficient), and mentally ill patients were all housed together,” according to The State Welcomes You: Minnesota’s Third State Hospital, Fergus Falls.*
In the late 1880s, Minnesota’s two state hospitals in St. Peter and Rochester burgeoned with mentally ill patients. The overcrowding caused disgraceful conditions—lack of space and plumbing, poor ventilation and drainage, neglected and mistreated patients, filthy livestock that roamed freely about the grounds. And in 1880 the situation turned dangerous when a fire destroyed a wing at the Rochester State Hospital, killing 24 patients.
A third facility was crucial. But where would it go? The hospitals in St. Peter and Rochester adequately served the southern and eastern portions of the state, so a northern location was sought. Fergus Falls contended with Alexandria, Brainerd, Sauk Center, Little Falls, Lake Park and Detroit Lakes.
Thanks to some “intense politicking”, Fergus Falls secured the hospital in 1887, and the legislature purchased land for $24,280. Architect Warren Dunnell designed the complex based on the plan Dr. Thomas Kirkbride had created. Kirkbride pioneered a new standard for mental health treatment based on the tenets of the moral treatment.
Kirkbride promoted a design principle for American asylums that promoted cheerfulness, natural light, open spaces, and abundant fresh air. The Fergus Falls State Hospital was designed according to his linear plan and included a farm for patients to engage in manual labor as therapy.
Even today, in its desolate condition, you can appreciate its expansive views and ample space. Enclosed outdoor porches provided fresh air, and the facility’s open-door policy meant patients could explore the campus freely.
From Peaceful to Panicked
Constructing the state hospital took 12 years, but the first patients were admitted as soon as the west ward was completed in 1890. Those first patients were admitted for “epilepsy, intemperance, injury to head, disappointment in love and overwork.”*
The open-door policy may seem strange for a facility housing mentally unstable individuals; however, the moral treatment plan focused on handling patients like people (rather than prisoners) and called for a regimen of hot milk and rest. The hospital’s first superintendent, Dr. Alonzo Williamson, asserted that those two “forces” were responsible for the fact that physical restraints were not needed.
A Fergus Falls Weekly reporter visited the hospital and wrote that he was greeted by a patient who exclaimed, “The state welcomes you, sir.” The writer compared the state hospital to a summer resort. However, as the facility filled with more unruly patients, that initial peace became a distant memory.
So distant that special rules had to be imposed after unfortunate incidents began occurring, such as a hydrotherapy session that went horribly awry. A patient was burned so severely that she died five days later. In another case, a patient scrubbing the floor became unruly and accidentally killed another patient with the cleaning tool.*
Experimenting With People’s Lives
Terms used for mentally ill people in the 1920s included “feebleminded” and “moron,” according to American Pyschosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System.** It was the peak of the eugenics craze; male “morons” were thought to end us as criminals while female morons, tended toward prostitution, making state hospitals a critical component of community safety.
By the 1930s, the Fergus Falls State Hospital found itself vastly overcrowded and woefully underfunded. Patient numbers peaked in March 1937 with 2,078 individuals confined within the hospital walls, despite the facility’s 1,890 patient capacity. Day rooms and hallways were filled with patient beds.
In the east ward of the complex, those day rooms now stand empty, largely unchanged from over a century ago. Fraying white curtains still hang from the ceilings, wafting eerily in the still air.
The state hospital suffered more after World War II ended; personnel and funding became even more scarce, yet unstable patients continued to stream through the doors.
Dr. William Patterson, the hospital’s third (and most long-standing) superintendent, did what he could to attract and retain workers. He added amenities like a beauty shop, diner, coffee shop, greenhouse, and auto repair shop. His wife Marguerite started an internal newspaper called The Weekly Pulse to update employees and patients on hospital news and activities.
Amenities weren’t the only thing changing at the state hospital. Treatment continued to evolve, including things like psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and tranquilizing drugs. The lobotomy also emerged as a form of therapy, despite controversy.
The lobotomy had been pioneered in Portugal and was brought to the United States in 1936 by Doctors Walter Freeman, a neurologist, and James Watts, a neurosurgeon.** By 1941, Freeman and Watts had performed lobotomies on almost 100 mentally ill patients and were claiming good results for many of them, especially those with symptoms of agitated depression and obsessive-compulsive symptoms.**
That same year, those two men performed the catastrophic lobotomy on Rosemary Kennedy that would eventually have repercussions for the entire federal mental health care system.
Hundreds of miles away in Fergus Falls, lobotomies were performed on mentally ill patients at the state hospital. One such procedure was accidentally witnessed by a Fergus Falls High School vocational class visiting the facility.*
Imagine being a high school student listening to presentation after presentation by stuffy medical personnel. You’re in a patient room expecting another explanation of hospital policies and procedures. Suddenly, the doctor picks up a drill and bores holes into a patient’s skull; he then sticks a wire-like tube through the holes and turns it, severing the frontal brain lobe. That’s a lobotomy.
Slicing up a person’s brain became less necessary with the introduction of anti-psychotic drugs, sparking a revolution in how mentally ill patients were treated.
One of the great ironies of American psychiatric history is that during 1955, at the same time that the Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health was being charged with finding a solution to the mental illness crisis, a totally unexpected solution was appearing. The solution was chlorpromazine, sold in the U.S. under the trade name Thorazine. It had been discovered in France in 1952 and reported to dramatically reduce the delusions, hallucinations, and manic symptoms of many patients with severe psychiatric disorders.**
Deinstitutionalizing the Institutions
By the 1950s, large facilities housing mentally ill patients were no longer en vogue, thanks to information from the aforementioned Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health. The findings signaled the beginning of the slow, tragic decline of the Fergus Falls State Hospital.
The commission’s report, “largely ideological” and “sufficiently ambiguous to allow various interest groups to read what they wished into it,” declared in 1961 that state mental hospitals were “bankrupt beyond remedy”.** Community mental health centers (one for every 100,000 people) were recommended, and the president of the American Psychiatric Association recommended that state mental hospitals should all be “liquidated as rapidly as can be done in an orderly and progressive fashion.”
October 31, 2015, marks the 52nd anniversary of President John F. Kennedy signing the landmark Community Mental Health Act. The legislation called for mental health centers across America that would allow individuals to be treated while working and living at home, instead of being neglected or possibly abused in state institutions. Without ever mentioning his sister, Kennedy hoped to eliminate other instances of family members being torn from their families and hidden in facilities miles away. Less than a month later, Kennedy was dead.
Fergus Falls tried to keep pace…unsuccessfully.
In 1971, the state hospital became Minnesota’s first regional center (officially changing its name to the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center in 1985). In 1973, the direct care staff was reduced, sparking outrage among the center’s advocates. In a Forum article, Bill Johnson said the reduction had turned the center into “at best only a custodial program” and “at worse…a warehouse of dehumanized humanity whose dignity and worth is being assaulted daily on all sides.”
Protests fell on deaf ears. Stories continued to emerge in local newspapers about escaped patients and their subsequent crimes, budget deficits, and program cuts. Staff numbers wore thin. Patients were transferred elsewhere. Entire sections of the massive Fergus Falls facility went completely unused. Across the country, state psychiatric hospitals beds were being eliminated—a total of 432,633 were cut from 1955 to 1981. And where did those mentally ill patients go? Right into the community where they were supposed to receive care…but didn’t.
American Psychosis author Torrey writes:
The patients being discharged to live in the community by this stage were the sickest and most difficult to manage. They were the patients who were most in need of well-organized community mental health services…The primary concern of most state mental health agencies was to continue emptying their hospitals as quickly as possible, thereby shifting the cost to the federal government and saving state funds. Where the patients went was of lesser concern.
During the centennial celebration of the Fergus Falls facility, CEO Elaine Timmer remained upbeat. “We’re real proud of the fact that we have been able to provide 100 years of continuous service and look forward to providing 100 more. We are on the verge of significant change in the organization,” Timmer said in a July 15, 1990, Forum article. Timmer eventually left the organization in 1995 to join its overseeing entity, the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
The End Is Near…?
By the early 2000s, patient numbers dwindled to just more than 100 individuals being treated for “mental illness, chemical dependency, and detoxification.” In 2005, the center closed and two years later the state sold the land to the city of Fergus Falls. It took another two years for the entire structure to be completely vacated.
Referred to as “The Kirkbride,” the facility still rises above the skyline of Fergus Falls… for now. As a national historic place, the building seems to have escaped the prospect of demolition.
Except that it hasn’t. The city argues that the building is simply too big and too costly to redevelop. In 2004, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota listed the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center as one of the most endangered buildings in the state.
The Friends of the Kirkbride organization is working tirelessly to save the center; the situation was looking up when, in 2013, the city hired a developer, but those hopes evaporated this summer when the city cut ties with the company.
Back to Square One
Friends of the Kirkbride host tours of the building free of charge, hoping to inspire others to join the fundraising cause that will enable continued use. Tours are full for 2015, but you can schedule one for 2016… if the complex isn’t torn down by then.
That’s the biggest worry for advocates. They are doing everything they can to demonstrate the building’s usefulness. Imagine Fergus Falls is a joint effort of the Springboard for the Arts, the Fergus Falls Economic Improvement Commission, the Otter Tail County Historical Society, and PlaceBase Productions. Imagine Fergus Falls aims to foster community interaction about historic preservation through innovative arts programming and community storytelling.
Nancy Cook toured the center in October to learn more about its history. She was one of the artists in residents brought in through Imagine Fergus Falls and Springboard to host a creative writing project focusing on the Kirkbride. She held workshops on Saturdays for local writers and will help produce an anthology of the work inspired by the building.
Other efforts that are keeping the Kirkbride front and center include a recent presentation of “Walking the Tightrope,” a play based on the journal of an actual Fergus Falls State Hospital patient named Victor M. Victor. On Friday, you can watch “Geist,” a movie filmed at the Kirkbride; the film is being shown at Legacy Hall at the Fergus Falls M | State campus.
In its heyday, the Fergus Falls State Hospital was a beacon of modern medicine, a cathedral of care for the discarded masses of society who had nowhere else to go. Today, it’s a terrifying and mysterious relic of the past with an uncertain future… and time may be running out.
American Psychosis was not written about the Fergus Falls State Hospital…directly (interestingly enough, the cover photo was taken within its men’s ward). But the book so elegantly explains how the very effort meant to revitalize the mental health treatment system actually enabled its downfall.
(The new mental health and retardation) program (meant to honor Rosemary Kennedy) involved closing state psychiatric hospitals, shifting outpatient care to federally funded community mental health centers, and preventing mental illnesses. As implemented, the new federal program effectively lobotomized both the existing and the emerging state mental health programs. The federal program has been a disaster, and the current chaotic, dysfunctional mental health system is, in one sense, Rosemary’s baby.
State mental hospitals had been a mainstay of public psychiatric care in the country for more than a century. Reversing that policy involved shifting patients who’d been hospitalized for years, possibly decades. Federal programs were meant to replace the care in a more sophisticated, mature style, but the implementation and execution was clumsy, to say the least. The resulting disaster continues to plague the mental health industry today. American Psychosis author Torrey asserts that:
For the majority of people with serious mental illnesses, the situation is little better today than it was in 1947, when Frank Wright, in Out of Sight, Out of Mind, noted: Throughout history the problem of the mentally ill has been dodged. We have continually avoided mental patients – we have segregated them, ostracized them, turned our backs on them, tried to forget them. We have allowed intolerable conditions to exist for the mentally ill through our ignorance and indifference. We can no longer afford to disregard their needs, to turn a deaf ear to their call for help. We must come face to face with the facts.
*Information found in The State Welcomes You: Minnesota’s Third State Hospital Fergus Falls published by the Otter Tail County Historical Society.
**Information from American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System by E. Fuller Torrey.
Featured Image courtesy Friends of the Kirkbride Facebook page; taken by Steve Janssen.