This past October my family embarked on a road trip across the good ol’ home state. Our goal was to hit up many of Minnesota’s ‘odd’ landmarks. One of them on our list was the abandoned Kirkbride Institution in Fergus Falls. The Kirkbride is located about 2.5 hours/175 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Spanning almost half a mile and 750,000 square feet, the Kirkbride Asylum was created by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a famous physician. A big player in mental health, Kirkbride was a proponent of the thought that sunshine and being outdoors helped with a variety of ailments. His buildings that popped up around the United States are all very similar in nature – following the “Kirkbride Plan” design: a layout with maximum amount of exposure to light, open spaces, and natural resources outdoors. You can learn more about the various buildings that one time spanned the country HERE. Now the Fergus Falls location is one of only a handful left standing.
In 1888, architect Warren Dunnell began construction on the building, following Kirkbride’s layout proposals. It was completed in 1907. The building and it’s grounds were to be used for almost the next 100 years. At it’s peak there were over 2,000 patients scattered in 22+ wards living inside the institution. It came with a farm, orchards, garden, bakery, power plant, and living quarters for all who worked there. The institution was completely self-sufficient due to many patients working the fields as part of their treatment plan.
As many institutions and asylums do, Kirkbride buildings have a long and checkered past. Almost all patients were forced against their will to enter these facilities. Things now that are everyday occurrences with people going about their daily lives would’ve been cause for entrance. I’m talking developmental disorders, common diagnoses, and even things like overwork and fright. Patients that had diseases that doctors were unwilling and unable to treat such as tuberculosis were amongst the roster. Asylums are another instance in our history where we didn’t handle things correctly when we look back. They were used to isolate and abandon the poor, the social outcasts, and the people who had no other options. We used a wide net of labels and ended up snatching away the possibility of normal lives for thousands. Many patients that entered Kirkbride institutions never left – they lived out the remainder of their lives inside those walls. There’s a field in the Northwest corner of the Fergus Falls Kirkbride that proves this. It’s purpose was a graveyard where almost 3,000 people are buried. We didn’t go to this part, but from other’s stories many of the white cross markers are gone (only about 30 remain) and one only knows the true scope of tragedy when you see the divots in the grass that signify something or someone is buried there.
Over the years as drug treatment, healthcare, and mental health outlook began improving, less patients were ordered to live in the institution. During the 80s the focus of the Fergus Falls Kirkbride was diverted to mainly a chemical dependency rehabilitation center, changing it’s name to The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center. In 1986 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eventually in 2005 the facilities shut it’s doors for good.
We were only able to explore the outside of the grounds. I’m hoping come spring there’s talk they may re-start the tours of the inside and I think I would like to go on one to complete the experience and gain a full understanding.
When you first arrive to the Fergus Falls Kirkbride, it’s massive and set alone amongst many trees. You wouldn’t know it was there if you weren’t looking for it purposefully. When I stepped out of the car and took my first look up at the looming building I got chills. The Fergus Falls Kirkbride is foreboding to say the least. To know the injustices and sadness that occurred within it’s walls sets a gloomy tone. The once ornate Victorian-style building has fallen into disgrace. It sits shuttered, abandoned, and decaying. The “castle for the mentally ill” now more resembles it’s dark and questionable history.
I’ll admit I had many mixed feelings as I wandered around the Fergus Falls Kirkbride. It took us over an hour to walk around the entire length of the building. It’s obvious from first glance the beauty the building once held – but it’s hard to refute and balance the history that occurred and make those two opposing views work together. The Fergus Falls Kirkbride was marvelous and haunting all at once. My feelings towards the place became even more complex as I found out after the fact that long gone relatives of mine once spent time there.
The Fergus Falls Kirkbride is full of intricate details, arches, and small touches. Due to the glass block windows we were able to peek inside many times and see that the tiling, paint, and light fixtures often followed that mold. It all eluded elegance. Adding to the uneasy feel of the building was the fact that many of the signs of life once held in the building were left abandoned too. Windows still have curtains, tables and chairs set up, even bookshelves full of reading materials only to collect dust. Seeing all the work, time, and money on this building going to waste is in some ways another sad element. There’s many beautiful turn of the century touches in the Kirkbride that aren’t found anymore.
The thing that hit me the hardest during the walk was seeing the abandoned playground. There were swings, a slide, and even a rotting see-saw. Knowing so many children ended up institutionalized felt overwhelming and just hurt my heart.
The Fergus Falls Kirkbride has it’s future once again up in the air. Many locals and historians want to preserve the building for it’s historical element, but the small city of Fergus Falls doesn’t think they have the funds to continue upkeep. Many worry after years of break ins and vandalism, demolition is next. A group called Friends of Kirkbride have created a campaign to save the building.
I agree with the preservation of the Fergus Falls Kirkbride. Not only is it a sight to see and appreciate (as a lover of architecture I was blown away) it is a part of Minnesota and America’s history even if we don’t want to admit it. It’s not fair to demolish and smooth over a dark spot in our history. Too many people’s lives were altered because of Kirkbride and I don’t think it’s fair to them by building a Wal-Mart on the grounds and pretending it all never happened.
No matter what, it’s a one of a kind and unique landmark in Minnesota that was worth a visit if you’re ever near.
Are there any “strange” landmarks around where you live?
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Until next time,