On the north side of Fergus Falls stands a giant castle of a building complex surrounded by trees and nature. Once a center for healing for people who had mental illness, the building stands empty, with its fate uncertain.
The Fergus Falls State Hospital opened in 1890, and was one of the last “Kirkbride” buildings built in the United States. Named after Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride of the Kirkbride plan for treating mentally ill patients, Kirkbride buildings emphasized pastoral settings and natural light. The asylums were state-of-the-art in their day, aimed at creating a sanctuary experience for people with mental illnesses.
Like other Kirkbride asylums, the Fergus Falls State Hospital, designed by architect Warren B. Dunnell, had an ornate design, with a central main office and wings where the patients stayed, all placed within expansive grounds.
In 2021, Minneapolis artist Pete Driessen was in residence in Fergus Falls learning and understanding the influences the Kirkbride building had on the local community.
Out of that experience, Driessen came up with a project that meditated on the notion of healing — both inspired by the Kirkbride plan and the natural settings around it. Located in the Prairie Pothole region that stretches across three Canadian provinces and five U.S. states, the area’s rich prairie ecosystem was created by glaciers that caused deep depressions — out of which emerged lakes and wetlands.
The art that came out of Driessen’s research around the Kirkbride building is on view starting this weekend at the Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls. The exhibition is called “Migratory Wing/Prairie Wildflower Bed.”
The Kirkbride building in Fergus Falls has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986, and is one of the only remaining examples of Kirkbride hospitals left around the country.
There’s considerable controversy surrounding the building. It closed in 2005, two decades after asylums began being replaced by smaller group homes. In 2007, Minnesota sold the hospital’s land to the city of Fergus Falls, while preservationists fought to save the building. After a development deal fell through in 2015, the fate of the Kirkbride building remains undecided. Some want the complex to be repurposed, perhaps as a site for creativity. Others want it torn down and redeveloped.
For his stay, Driessen wasn’t allowed to go into the building. Instead, during his two-week visit, he stayed in the old nurses’ dorms, which have become an apartment building. Driessen walked around the building daily and visit other local sites, from the Ben Franklin store to the Prairie Wetland Learning Center, as well as the state parks in the area.
Driessen says the Kirkbride building reminds him of Versailles with its grand towers and immense presence. “It’s an artistic creative gem,” he says. He’d like to see the building repurposed like Dia Beacon in New York or Mass Moca where old industrial buildings are reused for creative purposes.
Driessen was interested in focusing on the hospital beds used in the asylum, and how similar in shape they are to garden plots. He has made a series of garden plots that reflect the migration patterns that go through the prairie wetland system.
“What’s unique about Fergus Falls is its location between the lakes and the prairie. The DNR has a regional hub there, where they’re doing lots of studying about the wetland, land management, and water fowl activity,” Driessen says. “It’s right in the middle of the continent, going north and south and so all the avian and pollinators fly through there. It’s really unique, geographically.”
Driessen’s project uses two beds that are reflective of the those used in the state hospital, where he also presents dried flowers that reflect the prairie. At the end of the project, Driessen intends to give away seed mixture of wildflowers and grass seeds.
“The beds are all about healing and cultivation of bodies and the patients getting better,” Driessen says. “This was a site where they could be in the hospital, but look outside these large windows. That was part of the architecture of the Kirkbride hospital system,” he says. “There was this emphasis on the connection with nature, and connecting patients to the great outdoors as much as possible. I really wanted to combine that cross hatching between the two different types of beds, the garden bed and the hospital bed, and how both are used for nurturing, cultivation, and healing.”
Eventually Driessen envisions installing the project on a larger scale, with 40 to 50 beds and a focus on prairie restoration. “I think less than 10% of the natural prairie is left,” Driessen says. “So it’s very important that we work to save that.”
“Pete Driessen: Migratory Wing/Prairie Wildflower Bed” is on view March 14 to 28 at the Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. Driessen will also be present for gallery hours on Saturday, March 25 (noon to 5 p.m.), and will host a dried wildflower vases and grass seed mix exchange on that Saturday and on Tuesday, March 28 (3 p.m. to 5 pm.)
Editor’s note: This story has been updated in reference to the DNR hub’s studies.