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Wendy Reuer, Published February 11 2012

Exhibit looks at history of Fergus Falls state hospital building

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. – The future of the Regional Treatment Center here is precarious, but some hope its robust history will help solidify a new use for it.

The Otter Tail County Historical Museum opened “The State Welcomes You: An exhibit of Minnesota’s Third State Hospital in Fergus Falls” on Friday to honor the building’s history and local impact.

The exhibit features facets of the more than 100-year-old facility that once employed 8 percent of Fergus Falls’ population and housed about 2,000 patients from around the state.

While the exhibit runs through November, the city faces an April 2013 deadline to decide if the former state hospital – which later came to be known as the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center – should be demolished or can be refurbished for another use. The state of Minnesota gave the city the property in 2007 along with a $7.1 million grant to use for demolition if no uses could be found for campus structures.

“Of course, that’s the ultimate goal is to save the facility to reuse it,” Otter Tail County Historical Society Executive Director Chris Schuelke said. “I think it can be an economic driver not just for Fergus Falls but for the entire area. It’s just simply such a unique historic resource that the city cannot afford to have it torn down.”

Supporters of preserving the sprawling property say there is potential for job and commerce growth, and that the history built into the more than 800,000 square feet of building space is irreplaceable.

Few may know that better than Gene and Maxine Schmidt. The life-long Fergus Falls residents founded Friends of the Kirkbride, a group that not only has been working to help find viable uses for the beloved building, but also regularly patrols the grounds, keeping watch for vandals and prowlers.

“It would be shameful for this building to go to waste,” Gene Schmidt said.

Designed by Minneapolis architect Warren Dunnell, the building was modeled after the recommendations of Thomas Kirkbride – a founder of the American Psychiatric Association.

The campus features elements of Romanesque design with a regal feel that fits just as well perched on the rolling hills of Fergus Falls, just a mile from downtown, as it would in the European countryside.

Inside, the building is adorned with decorative tile flooring, gothic impressions, and an ornate lead staircase among many light-drawing windows.

The fire-proof facility was constructed primarily from local products such as brick from Pelican Rapids, said Kathy Evavold, Otter Tail Historical Museum Curator.

“Because the bricks were all made locally, this building is physically a part of our ground,” she said. “It gives me chills to think how much it is a part of us.”

The Fergus Falls facility is one of the most intact Kirkbride structures in the country. It was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1986.

The Schmidts have given Friday tours to more than 4,000 visitors from around the world.

“This is a destination,” Maxine Schmidt said. “There are monies out there for redevelopment. We want to see jobs created. We are hoping for somebody to come in that will create jobs, bring young families in and make it a busy place once again.”

Tours are currently closed for the winter, but Schulte said he hopes the museum exhibit will make people more aware of the facility’s history, especially as the clock ticks on its future.

In November, six developers expressed interest in refurbishing the historic campus. But, only one company submitted a proposal to the city by the Feb. 1 deadline.

Geitso Export Management of Minneapolis proposed creating a mixture of business space. Geitso President and CEO Atul Wahai told the city council the complex would house primarily technology-related business, but retail shops and an international boarding school were included in ideas.

Schuelke said residents of Fergus Falls want to save the building, but its epic size easily scares developers.

“From the city’s perspective, they don’t want it to be a tax burden on their citizens. But I will counter that you can redevelop that facility in steps, in phases. It doesn’t all have to be done at once,” Schuelke said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530