Transforming the Kirkbride: Fergus Falls faces mental health issues & historic preservation with art

In Fergus Falls, Minnesota, one structure dominates the landscape more than any other. Spanning the length of eight football fields, the 700,000-square foot building with its red-tiled, turreted towers is sometimes referred to locally as “the castle.” The Fergus Falls State Hospital, better known as the Kirkbride building because its construction followed Thomas Kirkbride’s model for the design of mental asylums in the late 1800s, was once the region’s largest employer, and remains a distinctive landmark despite closing as a mental health institution in 2005. But its future is uncertain.

It’s becoming more promising, though, thanks to the work of local organizations determined to make the former hospital a center of community activity. The annual Kirkbride Arts and History Weekend, which will celebrate its third year September 17-20, has encouraged new conversations about the building and new engagement with its campus. More and more Fergus Falls residents are aware of the Kirkbride’s history and invested in what it might become.

The push to recognize the building’s potential started 11 years ago, when the Friends of the Kirkbride formed after a city council meeting. City officials were discussing “selective demolition” of the building – leaving the main towers standing, but tearing down the rest.

“In my opinion, that was not acceptable,” says Laurie Mullen, chair of the Friends. Mullen was one of the founders who started talking after that city council meeting and decided to form a grassroots group to advocate for preservation.

“[The Kirkbride] was once a significant economic engine in Fergus Falls, and we have always believed it could be again,” Mullen says.

Part of the fight for preservation was educating people about the building itself. “There were Fergus residents who had never been up to the campus,” Mullen says. “The community tour we offered was an opportunity to see what a wonderful jewel Fergus has.”

The Friends gained a new ally when Springboard for the Arts, based in St. Paul, opened an office in Fergus Falls in 2011. Springboard for the Arts – Lake Region, formed through a partnership with the Lake Region Arts Council, planned to bring Springboard’s artist resources to West Central Minnesota and to mobilize artists as rural community leaders.

The Friends of the Kirkbride reached out to Springboard shortly after the Fergus Falls office opened. They hoped that Springboard could help generate awareness of the Kirkbride through arts-based programming.

“There was a big need for the community to have more dynamic conversations about the future of the building, how it could be preserved; and the past of the building, having this complex history of mental health treatment for so long,” says Michele Anderson, Rural Program Director at Springboard – Lake Region.

What Else Is Possible
What Else Is Possible chalkboard. Photo credit: Naomi Schliesman

The Kirkbride Arts and History Weekend was born of the desire to tell the stories of the building’s history, foster conversations about its future, and show off its potential as a community gathering space. The first weekend was celebrated in 2013.

“Festivals, art and history weekends, and celebrations work because they are clearly demarcated from everyday life. They highlight your time with joy, lifting spirits above the normal routine, adding color, drawing people loosely together, and perhaps most important, giving them something to talk about,” Mullen says.

In its second year, the Arts and History Weekend featured a lively education about the hospital’s past in “The Kirkbride Cycle,” a performance by PlaceBase Productions. PlaceBase creates site-specific theater in collaboration with communities around Minnesota. In Fergus Falls, they hosted story-sharing events to learn about the history of the Kirkbride and how residents perceived it, and then created a script based on those community conversations. In the “Kirkbride Cycle” performance during Arts and History Weekend, local actors staged scenes around the outside of the Kirkbride and lip-synced to pre-recorded dialogue; attendees watched the play by walking around the building’s perimeter.

After seeing “The Kirkbride Cycle,” some attendees said they wanted to know more – not only about the building’s history, but also about the people who lived there as patients.

One person who heard the call for more was Lowell Carpenter, who played Thomas Kirkbride in “The Kirkbride Cycle” – the physician whose philosophies about mental health shaped the hospital’s design. Carpenter decided to write and produce a play further exploring the hospital’s history and its patients. He received funding from the Lake Region Arts Council, and the result is “Walking the Tightrope,” which will be performed at A Center for the Arts during this year’s Arts and History Weekend.

Carpenter had taught and directed theater at Fergus Falls’ high school since 1982, retiring shortly before participating in PlaceBase’s project. He had also previously created history-based plays with the Otter Tail County Historical Museum. For this new play, he and his collaborators dug into historical records, finding stories from sources like “The Weekly Pulse,” a newspaper written by the hospital staff.

Much of the play looks at conditions for patients over time. One section, “A Nation Shamed,” portrays a 1946 Life magazine exposé of the abysmal state of America’s mental hospitals. As institutions around the country worked to correct the problems Life had found, the Fergus Falls State Hospital was one that managed to improve successfully. Fergus Falls’ “Total Push” program, mentioned in a later follow-up to the Life article, was able to rehabilitate several individuals who had been thought of as hopeless.

The play includes lighthearted as well as serious moments, Carpenter says. One story found in historical records told of the beauty parlor at Fergus Falls, the first one in any state hospital in Minnesota. Another writer took on creating a beauty parlor scene, based on news clippings of the time, that could bring some levity into the play.

“We have five or six lines that we know were said by people involved in the beauty parlor’s creation. We built a scene around those lines for authenticity,” Carpenter says. One of those quotes came from a patient at the time: She said, “Whoever came up with this idea ought to be sent to heaven.”

One of the most compelling sources was a diary kept by a teenage boy who lived at the facility in 1962, which he then donated to the county historical museum in 2010. His writing about his experiences at the hospital and with mental illness became a major focal point, Carpenter says – and gave the play its name. “Walking the Tightrope” comes from the young man’s feeling that he was “walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon of depression.”

Despite the diary’s dark truths, Carpenter sees the story as having a happy ending – in fact, the diarist himself will be part of the talkback session after one of the play’s performances.

That former patient isn’t the only celebrated visitor to this year’s Arts and History Weekend. Fergus Falls will also welcome Robert Kirkbride, a descendant of Thomas Kirkbride and an architectural design scholar with the Parsons School of Constructed Environments. He has become involved in trying to preserve Kirkbride buildings around the country. On Friday evening of the Arts and History Weekend, he will give a lecture as part of an idea exchange about the future of the Kirkbride building.

This year’s Arts and History Weekend will also showcase the work of the Hinge Artists in Residence. The Hinge Arts program started in 2014 with its first call for artists, and the initial residencies began in early 2015. Artists in residence can stay on the grounds of the hospital, in newly converted apartments that were formerly a nurses’ dormitory, for 2 to 12 weeks.

Artists from Hinge will present installations and displays on the Kirkbride campus during the weekend, and Hinge artist Timothy C. Takach will lead a community sing on Friday night of the festival. The weekend will also include a Hinge presentation away from the Kirkbride campus: “Healings, Integrations, Illuminations: The Aesthetics of Process,” presented by Haley Honeman and Karla Hernando Flores in the storefront of 202 West Lincoln Avenue.

While other pieces of the Arts and History Weekend have focused on the Kirkbride building itself, “Healings, Integrations, Illuminations” speaks to living with mental illness. “We’re investigating what it means to heal and what it means to transform and integrate change into your life,” Honeman says.

Honeman and Hernando Flores worked with local organizations to host workshops, encouraging people to create art around transformation. Their project has been on view in a pop-up gallery in the storefront, but the Arts and History Weekend will feature an immersive theater experience there: Participants will be able to enter the gallery between 12 and 2 p.m. on Saturday of the weekend and experience the performance piece.

The art, Honeman says, “centers around questions you have when your heart and mind are hurting.” The show includes origami cranes, alluding to the Japanese legend that folding one thousand paper cranes will lead to a wish being granted. Visitors to the gallery can fold their own paper cranes and add them to the collection. Workshop participants also created stop-motion videos using magazine cutouts and recording their stories, and made collages using the same cutout images. On Chinese lanterns and glass bottles, participants wrote wisdom they wanted to share with others; those lanterns and bottles now hang in the gallery space.

“It’s a population that I relate to and I’m interested in working with,” Honeman says of people who have been diagnosed with mental illness. She wanted to “create space in the community honoring that group of people, and to create community dialogue about wellness.”

“It’s a very charged subject – it’s almost something you’re not supposed to talk about,” Honeman says. “There’s a lot of structural change that needs to happen.”

Honeman grew up in Fergus Falls, and decided to live at home for her Hinge residency. A theater artist who is interested in creating performance in classrooms and community spaces, Honeman is pursuing her master’s in Theatre for Youth from Arizona State University – and her project in Fergus Falls will serve as her graduate thesis.

Talking about mental illness and striving for better treatment should be part of the future of the Kirkbride building, Honeman says. “What’s been so nice about it being in transition is that the community has been able to gather there,” she says. “I hope that whatever happens there, that it ties to maintaining something for people living with diagnosis today.”

Haley Honeman and Karla Hernando Flores
Haley Honeman and Karla Hernando Flores Installation Photo Credit: Springboard for the Arts

That’s a vision shared by the Arts and History Weekend’s organizers. “Since Fergus Falls was one of few places in the state of Minnesota that was home to a mental illness hospital, I believe it gives us the responsibility to talk about mental health, the stigma behind mental illness, and how people with disabilities of all types are treated,” says Michele Anderson of Springboard for the Arts – Lake Region.

The Arts and History Weekend will also make time for reflection on the darkest parts of the hospital’s history. The State Hospital Cemetery contains hundreds of unmarked graves. The final day of the Arts and History Weekend will feature a ceremony of remembrance, including family members speaking about those who died at the State Hospital.

As for the future of the Kirkbride building and its grounds, that remains undecided. The city of Fergus Falls recently cut ties with a developer with whom they had been working. However, both Springboard and the Friends of the Kirkbride are optimistic – the city’s leaders have committed to preservation, and are using current development funds for smaller-scale updates to the building. And events like the Arts and History Weekend have been successful in showing the artistic and community potential of a space like the Kirkbride.

“I think the community as a whole has really embraced art as a way to get out and interact with each other,” Anderson says. “It’s a really exciting time to be here, and I think it will influence the future of the building. People are really proud of where they live, and four years ago, they didn’t necessarily see how great this community is.”

The third Kirkbride Arts and History Weekend will take place September 17-20. Learn more and see the full schedule of events here.