Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Architecture of Madness
I haven't read a review of The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States, a new book from the University of Minnesota Press, but the premise is fascinating. Carla Yanni, a Rutgers University professor, explores the philosophy of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a 19th century physician who believed calm surroundings could help the mentally ill.

In 2004, I produced a two-part series on the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, a sprawling series of connected buildings that is about one-third of a mile long and just 45-feet wide. This former state mental hospital was inspired by the works of Kirkbride.

Here's what I wrote about Kirkbride's philosophy: "Dr. Thomas Kirkbride promoted a so-called 'Moral Treatment' of patients. This 'Moral Treatment' dictated that patients be separated from society in large institutions on the edge of small towns. The experience of fresh air, sunlight and farming was supposed to ease their troubles."

When I originally reported the story in 2004, the state planned to shutter the building in 2005. Today, the city owns it (under a special agreement with the state). It's trying to find new uses for the buildings. And state legislators are scrambling to help. Rep. Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls) and Sen. Dan Skogen (DFL-Hewitt) tried securing legislation that would make the site a tax-free Renaissance Zone for 15 years. That effort failed. The Fergus Falls Daily Journal reports that the city would have received $400,000 to help with redevelopment efforts, but that money was part of the tax bill vetoed by Governor Tim Pawlenty. The Fergus Falls Economic Improvement Commission notes that the cost to demolish the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Facility buildings is $9.8 million.

One of the people I interviewed for the radio series was John Lauber, a Minneapolis historic preservationist. I was struck by his sympathy for the people who were tucked away there decades ago: "I think it would be a somewhat terrifying place to come to," he said. "Just because of the size and sort of the feeling that you would walk through that door and never come back out. And that was true of a lot of people."

To listen to an eerie two-part series on the Fergus Falls state mental hospital buildings, subscribe to the Building Minnesota podcast at iTunes. Or listen online at the PodLounge.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

You might be interested to know that federal government is planning on redeveloping the abandoned west campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington DC. Dorothea Dix convinced Congress to build the hospital in the 1850s. Based on the on the Kirkbride method the campus is a National Historic Landmark. You can see the project site at or check out some great recent photos at