Letters to the City Council: Preserve the Kirkbride

The Fergus Falls RTC story is one with national implications, and concerned citizens from across the country are getting involved. We’ve collected a few letters from those people, addressed to the Fergus Falls City Council, on the merits of preserving the Kirkbride. 

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May 7, 2012

Fergus Falls City Councilors
112 West Washington Avenue
Fergus Falls, MN 56537

Dear Councilors,

I write to you today to strongly encourage you to reconsider the value of the Fergus Falls RTC campus and the rehabilitation and redevelopment opportunity of the complex to the city and the surrounding region.

For the past 4 years, I have been intently studying the historical significance and financial viability of rehabilitation and redevelopment of Kirkbride-plan hospitals across the United States for my Masters degree thesis in Historic Preservation from Ball State University. The resource Fergus Falls has is one of 29 remaining Kirkbride-plan hospitals in the country, and by far the most intact and structurally sound of all nonrehabilitated facilities. The historical significance of these resources is one of national significance – giving us a direct connection to the evolution of psychiatric care, and representing some of the largest public welfare projects of the late 19th century (not to mention some of the most unique architecture in the world).

Beyond the historical significance, the Fergus Falls RTC must be saved, as it is the region’s largest economic opportunity. The size of the property is not an intimidating aspect, but rather an asset – providing space for a number of related and unrelated tenants to operate (and employ local residents). The RTC has the capacity to become an economic driver equal to, and possibly surpassing, projects including International Market Square in near-north Minneapolis, Landmark Center, Lowertown, and Union Depot in St. Paul, and Fitgers Brewery in Duluth. All of these projects preserved significant historic resources for use in today’s global economy by providing unique spaces tenants could not find elsewhere.

We speak of “creating jobs,” and yet very rarely does anyone know how to do so. The RTC presents two distinct opportunities to “create” jobs for the entire region. Rehabilitation and preservation of historic resources has been shown time and time again to create more, and higher skilled, jobs than traditional construction (and far more than demolition). These higher skilled jobs pay more than traditional construction too. Rehabilitating the RTC will also provide extensive space for new businesses, housing, and other needs for the area. The aesthetic value of preserving the RTC cannot be overlooked, as such a facility contributes significantly to the region and its perceived, and actual, quality of life – factors that go beyond tax incentives to encourage businesses to relocate or expand to the area.

I have enclosed portions of my graduate thesis for your information and consideration.

Additionally, I wish to offer my services to the City of Fergus Falls and its residents to brainstorm and discuss financially viable rehabilitation options for the RTC that will help the City realize its social and economic dreams while remaining respectful of the historic local, regional, and national significance of the RTC.

The RTC is the most unique asset to Fergus Falls – losing this treasure will be more detrimental to the local and regional economy and social well-being than can be imagined. Saving the resource through its rehabilitation will go beyond creating an initial rush of jobs for local residents by creating sustained employment opportunities, business development, and becoming one of the primary heritage-tourism destinations for the entire region. Rehabilitating the RTC is a golden opportunity that Fergus Falls, the surrounding region, or the State of Minnesota cannot afford to ignore. As such, I again implore you to consider protecting the entire Fergus Falls RTC campus and aggressively pursuing rehabilitation for the property.

Respectfully,
Maianne Preble

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May 4, 2012

Fergus Falls City Council
Fergus Falls City Hall
112 West Washington Avenue
Fergus Falls, MN 56537

Re: The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center

Dear Esteemed Council Members:

The news that many historic buildings and large portions of the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center face imminent demolition is resonating across the preservation and Kirkbride Hospital communities. As a preservation architect and green building professional who has spent 30 years working on preserving and adapting historic asylums, I believe it is important that I share the positive stories of reuse that I have been involved with and urge you to take a deep breath before taking actions that can never be recalled.

Why the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center Matters

The Minnesota Historical Society invited me to be the keynote speaker at their annual statewide conference this September in Fergus Falls and I instantly said “yes”, knowing that one of the largest and most intact Kirkbride‐plan hospitals remains there. I was asked to speak about the integration of historic preservation values and green building practices and how using my expertise in this emerging field has helped us to develop a strategic plan for the reuse of the former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, now the Richardson Olmsted Complex. The Richardson Olmsted Complex is probably the most famous and perhaps most spectacular of the Kirkbrides because it was designed by the towering architectural and landscape design figures of the time – H. H. Richardson and Olmsted & Vaux. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986, the same year that Fergus Falls was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, its 30 year abandonment was a preservation rallying call for citizens and professionals across the country. Our story has a very happy ending, but it was not easy getting here. And what Fergus Falls has that even the Richardson does not, is an almost intact floor plan – three of the original ward buildings at the Richardson were demolished in 1969, leaving a non‐symmetrical site plan and removing a part of the story which can never be replaced.

The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center is also one of the last of the Kirkbride hospitals. The Richardson was designed in 1870, the cornerstone laid in 1872 and it wasn’t until 1896, 10 years after Richardson’s death, that the 750,000 square foot complex was completed. Fergus Falls was begun in 1888, accepted its first patients in 1906 and represents some of the most significant architecture in Minnesota with unique architectural character, designed by important architects such as Warren B. Dunnell.

Reusing Kirkbride Plan Behemoths – It Can Happen!

Much of the Richardson (almost 500,000 remaining square feet) had been abandoned and deteriorating since 1974, but the community never gave up and the political and financial stars finally aligned in 2006 when New York’s then governor, Governor Pataki, allocated $100 million as seed money to stabilize and reuse it. But what made the difference here, was that the State who still owned the site, gave up management and ultimately ownership of the site to a new nonprofit formed specifically to find a reuse for the complex. The $100 million ultimately ended up being $76 million which has been used to stabilize the buildings and landscape (about $10 million), fund one of the best preservation and development processes I have ever been involved with and leverage the project to bring in more funding through Rehabilitation Tax Credits and New Market Tax Credits. But here’s the even bigger difference – we did not just put out a Request for Proposal to developers and sit back and wait to see what others thought should be done with the complex. Our nonprofit, the Richardson Center Corporation and the Richardson Architecture Center, led the development strategy ourselves. Through diligent state‐mandated RFP processes, we conducted a Historic Structures Report, Cultural Landscape Report, EIS, economic feasibility studies, master plan and institutional development plan – all led by our board and one amazing staff person. Each study informed the next. We took the time needed – six years – to establish our plan, agree on a development approach, and involve the community extensively. We weathered the recession and uncertainty and today have actual restoration work to show for it. We restored part of the first floor of our main administration building (the towers) to welcome the National Preservation Conference to Buffalo last October. We started construction this week on the rehabilitation of our Olmsted & Vaux‐designed landscape and by the end of this month, we will have chosen a boutique hotel developer and an architectural team to work with us to create the next phase of the complex – a boutique hotel, conference center and architecture center.

Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

Even the Richardson Center Corporation which has been fortunate to have been created with a large seed‐money fund, knew that we could not rehabilitate the entire complex at once (nine hospital buildings and various out buildings on 42 acres). With the assistance of our expert consultants we developed a master plan that phases the work over many years. Our hope and intent is that once the core three buildings are successfully reopened, uses and users for the remaining buildings will be found. This is why stabilization of all the buildings, which have all been identified as equally significant, was our first phase of construction.

Greening What’s Already Here

Historic preservation values equal the best of green building practices and historic, traditional buildings like these can be leading voices to demonstrate the integration of historic preservation and green building practices. The construction and operation of buildings accounts for almost 50% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. But reusing and retrofitting our existing buildings can reduce these emissions dramatically. These are all green building practices because they help keep what’s here and in doing so, avoid new impacts. In many respects, historic preservation methodologies are just sound, common‐sense approaches to protecting our resources, culture and heritage, and that is inherently sustainable development.

What our plans for the Richardson show is that the root of an asylum’s history can be respected by reactivating the strength of its architecture and extending the Olmsted principles to the heavily altered landscape. We can show, and Fergus Falls can too, that by reusing the buildings and landscapes we have, we can restore the dignity to these important places and its architecture in a way that reopens the site to the community in the most responsible way possible.

Durability of historic and traditional materials, plus the social and cultural sustainability of a historic complex of this scale reminds us that “the greenest building is often the one that’s already here,” and it doesn’t get much greener than this.

The Next Steps in Fergus Falls

I know that Fergus Falls is not Buffalo. Yet, while Buffalo is a larger city than Fergus Falls, like Fergus Falls, Buffalo has been mired in a poor economy for decades. In many respects, decades of inaction and little construction have saved many of our historic places like the Richardson Olmsted Complex. Without the development pressure for the land, they have been saved instead by abandonment and neglect. The durability of these historic places has kept them standing. In many respects, what they do have is time. And Fergus Falls has that time too. From my understanding, there is little real development pressure on the site. Potential funds apparently earmarked for demolition could be repurposed for stabilization and mothballing. A nonprofit development corporation could be set up like Buffalo’s to take on the phased rethinking of this significant piece of Minnesota and Fergus Falls heritage. But this is just one approach and every community and place is different. I developed a preservation management plan for the Kirkbride planned Bloomingdale Asylum in White Plains, NY which remains in use as a hospital, and served on the Urban Land Institute team that first developed plans for the Kirkbride planned St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, DC. These are just some examples of Kirkbride hospitals that remain in use. Both Traverse City, MI and Weston, WV are great examples of hospitals that have been revived.

Moving Forward

I grew up in Buffalo and believe that driving by the former asylum every week on our way to my grandmother’s for Sunday dinner, is what inspired me to become an architect. My first architectural history paper was on an evaluation of the Medina sandstone at the Richardson. I wrote my thesis for a Master’s in Historic Preservation from Columbia University on a reuse for the Richardson complex. I went on to become the first executive director of the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier (in Buffalo) leading an effort to find a reuse for the complex in the late 1980s which resulted in a book entitled “Changing Places: Remaking Institutional Buildings,” was the project architect for the adaptive use of one of the Richardson hospital into offices in 1989, served on various development teams over the years until I was appointed to the newly created Richardson Architecture Center board in 2006. I stepped off the board this past year to help establish the new Buffalo Architecture Center as a consultant and am returning to the board to continue guiding these efforts. But I am not unique on our board. Each person, all of whom are both experts in their field and community giants, has a personal story about this place. And I bet that there are many people in Fergus Falls or from Fergus Falls who can bring their personal story and rich knowledge and love of the hospital to bear in a new organization to guide the efforts to reuse the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center.

What you do have is time. The durability of these traditional, historic buildings gives you that. Please take the time to create a phased approach to preserving this important and irreplaceable part of your history. It has been done around the country. It can be done here.

Very Truly Yours,
Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C

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Michele Anderson is a Fergus Falls resident and program director for the Lakes Region Springboard for the Arts.

May 5, 2012

In any community, every challenge and problem, no matter how desperate it seems, presents potential for creating something more distinct for itself and strengthening relationships.

Fergus Falls faces many challenges at the moment, but it would be hard not to argue that the Kirkbride building is the biggest, longest and most symbolic challenge that has potential to define Fergus Falls to the rest of the world….but more importantly, to ourselves as a community.

As a young, newer resident that hopes to make a life here, I have been saddened to see that the last decade has been spent on telling a negative story from both sides of the fight – the city treating the building and the passion of preservationists as a burden, preservationists treating the council and its processes as a burden, and the council treating potential developers as a burden. There has been very little mentioned about what I find most compelling – the fact that in the late 1800s, the town worked together to rally support to make Fergus Falls the RTC’s home in the first place. Bricks and mortar aside, we are all stewards of an important community legacy.

So what kind of story is possible here? Is it the continuation of a story of a community coming together and imagining new possibilities? Or is it just another story that makes people yawn – the story of a town who couldn’t imagine its own possibilities, and went on about everyday life as usual?

It seems ironic that this month is both National Preservation Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, and on Monday we might be listening to a decision to erase a huge part of our town’s history, while the rest of the country spends their time bringing awareness to both of these issues.  In addition, how can Fergus Falls celebrate Summerfest on the Kirkbride grounds, bringing in folks from out of town, only to start demolition months later?

Right now, Fergus Falls needs two things: time and strong leadership. The time is within reach – we all know that the city can request an extension at no loss to the taxpayers. The leadership we need right now does not come from potential developers, or the Friends of the Kirkbride. It needs to come from the City Council, and that leadership, which is a great responsibility, should be used in a way to validate and empower people to live to their potential. This means creating a culture that makes space for diverse perspectives to work together and find common ground, which there was little room for in recent RFP processes. It’s not just about the building anymore, or even about money, it’s about the health and self esteem of our wonderful community.

Sincerely,

Michele Lee Anderson