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Considered state of the art at its opening, the Anoka State Hospital eventually fell behind ideas about mental health care

The hospital was the first in Minnesota to be built according to the cottage plan to reduce the institutional feel for its chronic patients.

aerial photo of anoka hospital
Aerial view of Anoka State Hospital, 1937.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When the fourth state hospital for the insane at Anoka opened in 1900, it became the first state transfer hospital for patients considered incurably insane. The hospital was the first in Minnesota to be built according to the cottage plan to reduce the institutional feel for its chronic patients. It remains one of the finest examples of the cottage plan in Minnesota.

Overcrowding of Minnesota’s mental institutions was a chronic issue around the turn of the twentieth century. Three asylums were already operating in Rochester, Fergus Falls, and St. Peter when planning began for the fourth. A commission formed in 1895 to find a site for the first state transfer hospital for the incurably insane. The commission chose a roughly 650-acre site along the Rum River in Anoka. Building began in June 1899, with plans designed by the state architect for the Board of Control, Clarence H. Johnston, Sr.

The first 100 patients transferred to Anoka were all men. They arrived at the asylum on March 14, 1900, and were housed in a wing of the central administrative building. Overcrowding led to the construction of another wing two years later.

Further expansion of the facility began in 1905. Several more cottages were added, along with farm and service buildings. By 1917, ten cottages, an auditorium, and a new administration building formed around a semi-circle completed the facility. A tunnel system linked the complex and nearby service buildings. The design allowed room for fifty patients in each cottage and increased the capacity of the hospital to 900 patients.

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By the 1930s, the majority of the population at the asylum was female. Ten cottages housed female patients, while male patients lived in the two wings of the original administration building. The influx of patients allowed the state hospital to become self-sufficient. Staff encouraged residents to work and hold jobs as part of their therapy. All the food used for meals was grown and harvested on a large farmstead staffed by patients. Women were offered training in hairstyling and sewing to care for their personal needs. Other chores assigned to patients were laundry, cooking, cleaning, and some maintenance jobs.

As the population at the Anoka hospital swelled to over 1,300 patients in the 1940s, buildings became overcrowded and hospital staff was overwhelmed. In part to address this issue, Anoka introduced new drug therapies and medical treatments that helped reduce the number of mentally ill under the state’s care. The changes supported the contemporary belief that proper treatment could control or even cure mental illness. The prevailing hope was that patients could return to their families and reduce the state’s responsibility for their long-term care.

Public attitudes toward the care of the state’s mentally ill began changing near the end of the decade. A report published in 1948 by the Unitarian Committee on Mental Hospitals criticized conditions at the seven state asylums. It concluded that hospitals were grossly underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded.

To emphasize his dedication to the issue, the governor called a press conference at the Anoka State Hospital on Halloween night, 1949. In front of more than 1,000 spectators, he set fire to 671 straitjackets and restraints used on patients. Youngdahl stood next to the fire and pledged to liberate patients “from barbarous devices and the approach which these devices symbolized.” He went on to dedicate the power of the state’s resources to helping patients get well and return to their lives.

Between 1960 and 1970, the population at Anoka dropped from 1,085 patients to 476 with the introduction of community-based outpatient and transitional care. Anoka began offering outpatient care programs for adults and adolescents, as well as adding chemical dependency treatment programs.

The remaining patients were moved into a new, secure treatment facility in 1999. Volunteers renovated three of the empty cottages into housing for veterans in 2017, and a fourth in 2019. As of 2020, the Anoka County department of corrections continues to use the remaining buildings.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.